Ashlee Branton’s lottery win is giving her and her son a new, settled life back home. Except that returning to Blaine, Washington means facing her son’s father, Brick Harcourt, in a most unsettling way. Ashlee deserted Brick and his less-than-accepting family when she’d become pregnant. Refusing to be just a statistic, she worked hard to raise their baby on her own. But as luck would have it, she has a chance to repair what she broke back then. Dare she take one more chance on love? But Ashlee has two pasts now, one with Brick and one with an ex who wants to crash their reunion. Will she run again or stay and sacrifice money for love?
Whole Lot O’ Love
Life had a lot of peculiar twists in it for the Branton clan. Cousin Tyce married an heiress who turned out to be his first love, but their other cousin Teri Branton was ditched at the altar and married a stranger within weeks.
Yes, Ashlee decided, the Brantons were given different, unusual paths to walk, and now Ashlee had one, too. Considering she was only twenty-three, she’d already been handed some doozies. A teenage pregnancy made her run off alone to take on single motherhood. After a short stint in school, she’d landed a decent job that paid the bills if not much more. Lost that job and started waitressing at a diner and lived broke—very broke.
And now this. The biggest, weirdest twist she could imagine.
She stretched out on the bed, propped her head on her hand and stared at her lottery ticket again. The numbers blurred on the strip of paper as she blinked through tears. Fearful she somehow had the numbers jumbled, she checked the screen of her phone again. Not jumbled. There they were; her birthday, Cory’s birthday, and Tommy’s.
She fisted a hand into her mouth to stop a shout of triumph? Fear? Excitement? With Cory asleep on his side of the bed, she had to be quiet. No shrieking, no giggling, no wild crazy joy. Her son would be cranky if he didn’t get a full night’s sleep.
Tracing the numbers on the ticket with a fingertip, she checked the screen on her phone again. She’d used Tommy’s birthdate out of habit, though they’d broken up last week.
The shakes began when she formed the amount in her mind. Half a million dollars. Half a million.
Five hundred thousand. Dollars. Real dollars.
Okay, that part had to be wrong. Luck like this didn’t happen to people like her. People from the La La Land Trailer Park did not win big. Not in the money department.
Except her cousins Tyce and Teri had won the game of love. And Tyce’s wife, Lisa, had inherited a ton from her husband, so in a way Tyce and Lisa had won in the money game.
Why couldn’t Ashlee win money? Maybe it was her turn.
Tommy, that’s why. He’d want half, if not more. But Tommy was gone, wasn’t he? He’d walked out of their lives a week ago because she wouldn’t let him move in. But she had Cory to consider and he’d never understood that.
He didn’t get that being with him for six months wasn’t long enough to take a chance. Not with Cory. And she hated the idea of living with a man just for the shared rent. That path led straight downhill to dependence and no way would she get talked into being dependent on a man. She’d been stuck there too often as a kid.
She was better off without Tommy, even if it meant she and Cory had to stay in this crappy motel until one of her job prospects panned out. She was an experienced administrative assistant and soon she’d leave the diner behind.
Soon, meaning first thing in the morning. She didn’t have to wait for a new job.
Because life had just taken another strange turn.
And she and Cory had to get the hell out of town. She’d walked away from her life before and she could do it now.
~ ~ ~At seven a.m. she showed up at work to get what pay Luis owed her. He cursed her out when he learned she was leaving him short a server. “I can do the breakfast rush. Sue-Ellen needs the help. But I’ll be gone right afterward.” Luis snorted his acceptance and got back to the griddle.
Cory waited silently behind her. He knew something big had happened and he seemed scared. No wonder, she’d had all their belongings packed and stowed in a corner when he’d woken.
It wasn’t until she’d seen his worried face that she realized she could leave everything but their clothes and his toys behind. She gave him a coloring book and crayons out of his pack and set him up at a stool at the counter.
Two hours later, Cory was bored, well fed and ready to leave. So was she.
Sue-Ellen called her over after Luis headed into his shoebox of an office to get her pay. “Is Tommy hurting you? Did he come back and do something?”
“No, Tommy’s gone for good,” she said and shook her head for emphasis, “but he’s not a bad guy and he’d never hurt me or Cory.” She smiled at Sue-Ellen. Behind them she heard Luis grumbling about undependable people. The sound of his shuffling feet drew close.
“I have family stuff to see to and I have to leave right away.” They hugged and Ashlee took her pay from her boss and left the diner for the last time. She held Cory’s hand and gave it an affectionate squeeze. “I’ll never have to sling burgers again.”
He smiled up at her. “Good. I didn’t like that job. I liked your old one. Are you going back there?”
“No, sweetie, I’m not. We’re going to live better than that motel, though. I promise.”
If she were wearing a hat, she’d toss it in the air and twirl. Here she was, Ashlee Branton, single mom from the La La Land Trailer Park, completely free to do whatever she wanted when she wanted. She picked Cory up in her arms and swung him in a circle. “We’re moving away, Cory, and we’ll be happier than ever before, you’ll see.”
She staggered under his weight. He giggled, as he was meant to. “When did you get this big?” She dragged in a breath and set him down.
“When you feeded me.” Their private joke made her laugh. “I’m five, Momma, not a baby,” he explained as if she needed to learn something important. She supposed their joke had grown old for Cory.
“So you are.” She held his hand to cross the street for the bus stop. Cory’s mittens were sodden from rain. February in Tacoma could be wet and miserable. Maybe they should go somewhere warmer instead of home to Bellingham. But Cory should have the benefit of more family, and she missed her mom and her cousins.
The bus arrived and she and Cory climbed on. She pulled his mittens off and warmed his hands in hers. She needed the anonymity of the bus, so she’d left her car behind the diner. Heading to the state lottery office to collect her win, she wanted her privacy. She did her mental checklist again.
Her lottery ticket was signed, her identification up to date, and she had a void check folded neatly in her wallet. Since she’d never actually used a check before, her mom had told her how to fill it out correctly. Unsure what to expect once she got to the office, her nerves jangled at the thought of her picture in the paper. But with it being a secondary win, and not a big jackpot, maybe they wouldn’t badger her about going public. Winners’ names may be public, but if it wasn’t a major jackpot then there shouldn’t be much fanfare.
She had enough money to pay for a nicer hotel than the dump they’d called home for the last three weeks. Once the money was hers, she’d go to a financial advisor at her bank and make decisions.
And then, in a couple of days, they’d go home to the La La Land Trailer Park and her mother. Tommy would never look there. But then, maybe he wasn’t looking. He hadn’t returned in the week since he’d left. Maybe she was concerned for no reason. If he didn’t care to come back then the money was hers, free and clear. He’d already left when she’d bought the ticket anyway.
Two days to gather her thoughts, make some plans and get advice. Easy. For once, her coming days would be easy.
~ ~ ~
Brick Harcourt took one last walk through the bungalow that would finance his dreams. It had been a long hard road to get to this stage, but the house was ready. The stagers had done a good job. The furniture was cool and sophisticated, the knickknacks and pictures perfectly placed. He’d worked his butt off on these renovations and he wanted to be the one here on open-house day.
Now all he had to do was put some cookie dough on a tray and slide it into the oven. The house would smell homey and welcoming, and small touches helped on open-house day. At least that’s what his buddy Kyle McNamara told him. Everything he’d worked for hinged on this house selling, and the sooner, the better.
He pulled the tube of dough out of the grocery store bag and sliced it the way the instructions told him to. He should have pre-heated the oven first, but he did it now and had to wait. No problem; if this was the worst thing to happen today, he’d be a happy man. He could afford to be patient for a few more minutes.
He’d wasted a lot of years hiding from life, doing nothing, being angry and spinning his wheels. These last two had been spent on hard work and dreams. Patience had been key to this project.
He’d grown up next door to the McNamaras and Kyle’s dad had given Brick his carpentry apprenticeship. Once he was licenced, Kyle had opened up a place for him in his renovation business. Working with Kyle had forced him back into life and this house was the culmination.
Selling the house was also the beginning of the next phase of him putting his life in order. It represented success and moving forward. For the first time in years he felt free of loss. Free of anger and rebellion and all that rebellion meant. It was his time now and he would make the most of it.
He walked to the front door to check that the flags were flapping in the light breeze. The sun was out, rare in Bellingham in February. The day looked perfect. He heard a ding from the kitchen and guessed the oven had heated to the right temperature. He slid the cookie sheet inside and closed the door just as he heard a young voice coming from the front door. “Can we go inside now?”
“I think so,” came a woman’s voice in that singsong they used with kids.
His first prospect was here. He rounded the corner and stood in the hall, a welcoming grin on his face. There stood a boy and his mother. They were both young.
She had dark-blonde hair and wide, frightened blue eyes. Her mouth hung open in shock.
“Ashlee?” He looked from the woman to the boy who hopped through the front door like a frog. Shock rose, causing his mind to stall out. And then some other emotion grew near his heart as he gaped at the boy. He thought he’d never get the chance to feel this warmth as he looked into the eyes of his own son. She’d run off pregnant, and now here she stood, with a kid who looked just like him. The boy rose to full height and blinked at him, not like a frog at all.
The boy had his eyes, brilliant blue, and his hair, midnight black. Ashlee put her hand on the boy’s shoulder and meant to pull him backward out of the front door, but Brick strode straight for them. The boy must have felt the tension, the shock, the tangle of fear, anger and raw pain because his eyes widened and stopped Brick in his tracks.
He fell to his knees to meet the boy’s eyes dead on. To show him he’d never need to be afraid, not of Brick, not ever. He worked to soften his expression.
“Don’t leave.” It was all he could come up with. The rest of whatever he wanted to say flew out of his head.
The boy looked up over his shoulder at his mother. “Momma?” He shrugged the shoulder Ashlee Branton was holding. “You’re hurtin’ me.”
He wanted to snatch up the boy, grab him to his chest and bury his nose in his neck to smell him, to know him. How he felt, how he smelled, how much he weighed, how soft his hair was, how deep his soul was, how fast his heart beat and how strongly. “Will you tell me your name? Please?” he addressed the boy.
Ashlee drew in a sharp breath but released their son from her grip and rubbed his shoulder where she’d pinched. “Go ahead, it’s okay,” she said, her familiar husky voice icily calm.
“I’m Cory,” he said.
“I’m Brick Harcourt, Cory.” And I love you already. “I’m pleased to meet you,” he said solemnly. Cory. His name was Cory. He blinked back tears.
Ashlee got a strange look on her face and then went board stiff. She tapped Cory on the head so he’d look up at her. When he did, she spoke softly. “Cory, you’ve asked about your dad, right?”
“Yeah, the other kids in school have dads.”
“Well,” she said, “Brick Harcourt is yours.”
With three ongoing romance series (steamy paranormal, sexy contemporary and heartwarming Christmas) and contemporary family novels, she rarely spends a day without writing. She has written novels, novellas and short stories for Kensington Books, Harlequin Books, Carina Press, and Robinson (UK) although now she publishes her work herself. Look for more exciting releases throughout 2017 and 2018…
For more info and sample chapters: http://www.bonnieedwards.com/
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