In anticipation for the third and final book in the Key West Escape Series, we are kicking off the release (coming October 22) with a sneak peek! But just a warning, if you start, get ready to PREORDER the rest so that you have it the MINUTE it goes live - you'll be waiting on the edge of your seat!
Without further ado...
April Linus would bet her last twenty bucks she was being followed. It was either that or pregnancy hormones were screwing with her head. Pulling her oversized sunglasses out of her purse, she slipped them on and continued down Duval Street toward the Southernmost Sandwich Shop to pick up a food order for the bookstore staff. Spring break was in full swing in Key West, but the normal foot traffic had thinned out as people headed for the beach or ducked inside air-conditioned restaurants for lunch. Flipping her long, golden hair over her shoulder, she did a quick scan of her surroundings. The faces on the sidewalk looked innocuous, and the passing cars seemed in a hurry to get somewhere. If someone was trailing her, they were being very discreet.
Maybe it was one of her father’s henchmen.
If so, she had nothing to hide. Her father knew about pregnancy and hadn’t bothered her in months. If he was still upset, what more could he do about it? He already cut off her credit card and access to her bank account when she moved out of the mansion. She was completely on her own now. Well, almost. She was living in her boss’s pool house for practically nothing and working full time at the bookstore as assistant manager. Molly and her husband Anders Ostergaard had been so wonderful to her. They’d gone out of their way to make April feel like part of their family, but sometimes she still felt alone.
It had to be the pregnancy hormones making her paranoid. Lately, she could go from perfectly happy to doom and gloom in a millisecond. Molly, who was pregnant with her second child, had given April a ton of advice, taken her shopping for maternity clothes, and given her a stack of books on pre-natal care and babies in general. She knew her boss meant well, but she was a little overwhelmed by it all.
This morning, she’d woken with a fierce craving for her old wardrobe. When she pulled out another ugly, shapeless sack from her closet, she decided she’d had enough. She dug up a pair of Louboutin nude platform stilettos that had traveled with her from her old life and squeezed into a hot pink bodycon tank dress. The clingy fabric was definitely not maternity wear, but it managed to stretch over her enormous bump and made her feel all swollen and ripe like the bronze Gaia Mother statue on Molly’s coffee table. For the first time in a very long time, April felt sexy.
Maybe people were staring.
When your father was the top South Florida real estate developer, and the richest man on the island, people knew who you were. They talked about April even before she became the nineteen-year-old heiress and valedictorian of her senior class who got knocked up and disowned by her family. Her mistakes were juicy gossip.
The burning question on everyone’s mind though was who had gotten her pregnant. Her best friend Greenlee Fiori loved sharing the theories she heard in town. The number one suspect was April’s ex-boyfriend from high school Damian Rios, which was a fair guess. Her father had banished him from the island midway through their senior year, but he came back for a visit around the time April got pregnant.
In close second was one of her father’s married friends. Just no.
And in third place, Dr. Fiori, the plastic surgeon who did April’s boob job, who also happened to be Greenlee’s father. They were kidding, right? Ew.
People could speculate all they wanted, but they’d never know the truth. April hadn’t told anyone, not even Cheyenne or Molly, and she wasn’t planning on it.
A blue sedan with tinted windows slowed down, keeping pace with her. April’s heart leapt. Feigning ignorance, she pointed her nose in the air and kept walking.
It could be one of your father’s minions?The little voice in her head whispered.
Her lower back tightened and her body tingled with goosebumps as she crossed a street that bisected Duval.
When the car disappeared, she glanced over her shoulder to see where it went and spotted it stuck at a red light. Relaxing a fraction, she faced forward again and walked straight into a solid wall of feathers and sequence. The towering six-and-a-half-foot drag queen shoved a piece of paper at her. April ignored it and kept moving, determined to reach the sandwich shop before the light turned green.
“It’s a flyer not a subpoena, honey.”
April stopped and turned around. A pair of drag queens stood on the sidewalk promoting the new drag club that opened in March. The one who tried to give her the flyer frowned and rolled her shoulder before turning her head away.
April retraced her steps and removed her sunglasses. “Oh, I didn’t mean to be rude. My head was someplace else.”
The shorter one with flawless bronzed skin and fine boned features tsked her tongue.
“Here’s some advice, when a 6’5” drag queen hands you something, you take it.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll have one.”
The traffic light changed. The blue sedan drove past and made a left turn at the end of the block. Perhaps she’d been imagining things after all. She slipped her sunglasses back into her purse.
The tall queen with the curly blonde wig refused to look at her, but her friend relented.
“You’re too pretty to have the weight of the world on your shoulders, Mama Kitty. Come talk to Juanita. I’m a great listener.” Juanita was small boned and only an inch or so taller than April. Her soft voice held the hint of a Spanish accent. She glanced at April’s feet and her eyes lit up. “But before we get started, dios mío, the shoes are scrumptious! Dior?”
The grumpy queen folded her arms and gave April a once over. “Clearly, they’re Louboutin.”
Juanita fanned her face with her hand. “Oh my god, I’d cut my toes off to fit into a sexy pair of Louies. Am I right, Carly?”
Carly’s long eyelashes lowered as her gaze settled on April’s feet. “Ugh!” she grunted and stomped a white platform go-go boot. “Those shoes are to die for, and that dress! Now that’s how you rock a bump like Beyoncé at the Grammys.”
“Irreplaceable and bootylicious.” Juanita mimicked a Beyoncé dance move.
Carly rubbed her flat, corseted tummy as she contemplated April’s round one. “How would I look with a bump like Virgin Mary here?”
Juanita scoffed. “Like a hippo with bad gas.”
“Ouch, put those claws away Joan Crawford.” The towering drag queen extended a huge, white gloved hand to April. “I’m Carly. Owner of Glitter, aka home of the most fabulous drag show in Key West. We’re new to the neighborhood by way of South Beach.”
“April Linus.” She accepted the handshake. “I’m the assistant manager of a bookstore just a few blocks up Duval.”
“The Ever After Book Shoppe?” Juanita’s face lit up. “I pass by that lovely little place every day. It’s just adorable.”
“You should stop in sometime. What do you like to read?”
Carly snorted. “Fashion magazines and gay porn, but only for the pictures.”
“That’s not true. I like gay romance novels.”
“Well, we do have a small selection of LBGTQ fiction, but we can order anything you’re interested in.”
Carly touched April’s shoulder. “Trust me, Juanita is only interested in one thing. And if it doesn’t have Ian Somerholder’s eyes and Chris Hemsworth’s abs, she’s not buying it.”
Juanita tsked. “That’s not true. I never pay for sex.”
“Let’s make a deal.” Carly offered the flyer again. “We’ll come by your place and purchase some books, if you promise to come to one of our shows and bring all your friends.”
April shifted her purse strap on her shoulder and took the flyer. “Deal, but I have to get going. I’m picking up lunch for my boss, and she threatened to start gnawing on the books if I didn’t hurry.”
“Ha!” Carly touched her white gloved fingers to her mouth. “She sounds like a real terror.”
April smiled. “No, she’s just pregnant.”
“Must be contagious, Carly. We better keep our knees together.”
Giggling, April shook her head and started down the sidewalk again. She turned around and waved the flyer. “It was a pleasure to meet you, ladies. Welcome to the neighborhood.”
“Don’t be a stranger, Mama Kitty.” Juanita blew her a kiss.
Carly lifted a gloved hand and waved as she turned to her friend. “You sure I wouldn’t look that fine with a bun in the oven?”
“Bitch, please. Keep your buns on your backside where they belong.”
April was still smiling when she crossed the last street and went into the sandwich shop.
There was a line at the counter as usual, so she had to wait for the turkey BLTs to be made because the shop didn’t take preorders. As she stood against the wall in the small, crowded shop listening for her number to be called, the baby kicked her hard. She sucked in a breath and saw stars for moment. Rubbing the sore spot on the top of her belly, her gaze landed on the two boys sitting at the café table nearest to the door watching her. Chad Wilcox, Greenlee’s ex-boyfriend, and his best friend Vince, had been in her high school graduating class. Chad whispered something to Vince and they both glanced in her direction and snickered.
Her face flushed. Whatever. They were just immature. Chad was good looking but she never liked him, especially after he tried to kiss her while he was dating Greenlee.
April shifted her purse onto her outer shoulder to hide her stomach and turned toward the wall.
“Sixty-nine?” The sandwich guy called her number.
The boys at the table burst into laughter.
She grabbed the sack of food and stomped toward the exit. “Grow up, Chad.”
“Hey, April, maybe if you had stuck to 69, you wouldn’t look like you swallowed a basketball.”
Tears sprang to her eyes, and her face heated. She shoved the glass door open and kept walking.
“Come again!” Chad shouted after her.
“But use a condom next time,” Vince added, and their laughter followed her out the shop.
She was trembling when she stopped to reposition her purse strap. When she took a step, her heel caught on a groove in the pavement. She staggered sideways and grabbed the trunk of a palm tree to steady herself. Her purse fell off her shoulder and hit the ground, spewing its contents onto the sidewalk.
“Darn it!” April braced herself as a wave of anger, embarrassment, and frustration surged through her system. The back of her eyes burned, and she struggled not to cry. With her belly in the way, she crouched awkwardly and reached for the bag.
“Oh, don’t. I’ve got it.” A pretty, spring breaker wearing a Florida Gators t-shirt over a bikini broke away from her pack of girlfriends and squatted beside April. The girl was young, maybe 21, if the beer in her plastic cup was anything to go by. It probably wasn’t. She sat her drink on the sidewalk before reaching for April’s things.
April used the palm tree to help herself stand and waited, praying Chad and Vince weren’t watching from the window.
The girl gave April a cheerful smile as she offered the purse to her. “Here you go, ma’am.”
Ma’am? The word stung. They were the same age.
April took a deep breath to sooth her sudden nausea and exhaled. “Thank you.”
“Sure thing,” the girl said over her shoulder as she jogged to catch up with her friends.
April envied the spring breakers who jaywalked in a group across the street too busy chattering with each other to care about traffic. They didn’t have to worry about keeping dangerous secrets or making enough money to pay for their own food and medical care. She touched her enormous stomach. Or giving birth.Their biggest concern at the moment was deciding which cute outfit they were going to wear when they went out on the town tonight.
The blue sedan pulled up beside her and the passenger side window lowered. A man a flat nose and deep-set eyes stuck his head out. “Get in the car.”
Her heart thumped hard against her breast bone.
“No,” she said, backing away from him. “I can’t. I have to go. Sorry.” What the heck? Why was she apologizing for not letting him abduct her?
Afraid to run in the platform heels, she shuffled down the sidewalk away from him. She’d taken a few steps when the car pulled ahead of her and turned onto the street side street blocking her path. Stopping short, she looked the way she’d come. Chad and Vince were standing on the sidewalk in front of the sandwich shop talking to three girls. More spring breakers. Ducking into one of the stores was a terrible idea, because it might leave her cornered and dashing across busy Duval was too dangerous. Up ahead, Juanita and Carly were still in front of their club, handing out flyers. Juanita spotted April and waved.
April slouched as exhaustion moved over her thick and heavy like a storm cloud. The tightness in lower back shifted to a throbbing ache. She should have listened to Molly about the stilettos. They were a terrible idea. Rubbing the spot that hurt, April glanced around for a place to sit and seriously considered the curb. The only thing to do was to simply go around the car. If her father was in the backseat, she’d just keep walking. It’s not like he could snatch her off the street in front of so many witnesses.
That made her pause. Would he do that? Swallowing her trepidation, she ignored the nagging throb at the base of her spine and walked toward the car with a purpose. Her steps faltered when Flat Face climbed out of the front passenger seat and stood up, blocking her path when she would have gone around the rear of the car. She took a hard right at the corner instead and stopped short.
Her father stood on the sidewalk. His black SUV parked on the side street with the back door opened wide.
“Hello, April,” Philip Linus said with an inscrutable expression on his face. At fifty-one, he was still very handsome with very little gray in his thick brown hair. The custom designer suits that he liked to wear emphasized his lean, fit body. Though he was three inches shorter than April in her bare feet, he was a powerful and dynamic man capable of bringing lesser humans to their knees with just a look.
Disappointment flickered in his eyes as he stared at her.
Her belly tightened sickly as the tension thickened between them.
“You should have let me fix this, Kitten. I still can.”
April’s pulse jumped. She shook her head and retreated a step but Flat Face loomed behind her blocking her escape. “Daddy, please don’t suggest another abortion. It’s too late for that.”
Philip pursed his lips and glanced way. “I have another proposition for you.”
Flat Face moved closer. She could feel his hot breath on her shoulder. “Please make him go away. I can’t have this conversation with him here.”
Philip nodded and his henchman backed off. When he climbed into the passenger seat and shut the door, April faced her father again. “What’s the proposition?”
“There’s a lovely couple in Wisconsin who are desperate to have a child of their own. They have a beautiful horse ranch with stunning scenery and lots of other pets and neighboring children to play with. Their town has an old western façade where they celebrate frontier days in the summertime and turn main street into a Christmas wonderland in the winter. It really is the ideal place to raise a child.”
He knew how much she loved horses and quaint old towns. “It does sound pretty wonderful,” she admitted, absently rubbing her belly.
“Think about it, April. Your baby could have a magical childhood with a mother and a father who love them dearly. And you could return to your old life and have everything you once had. Your bank account and credit cards. Your clothes and car. You could go to any college of your choice.”
Maybe the ominous feeling she’d been having all day had been foreshadowing this moment and the life-altering decision she had to make. Did she go with her father and return to her old life? Give up her baby to embrace her young adulthood like the carefree Florida State girls? It was so tempting. Sometimes she wondered what on earth had made her think she was ready to be a mother. Just a year ago, when her choices had been limitless, she couldn’t even decide where she wanted to go to college or what she wanted to study. How had choosing not to terminate the pregnancy been such an easy choice?
She cupped her swollen belly with both hands. She was terrified. But she was also excited and desperate to hold her little one, even if it meant never getting to experience campus life and college boyfriends and wild spring breaks in Cancun with her girls. Or reclaiming the lavish lifestyle she missed desperately. Growing up on a ranch sounded amazing, but if she knew one thing for certain, it was that nobody could love her baby as much as she did.
“I’m sorry, Daddy. I can’t.” Declining her father’s offer was the hardest thing she’d ever done next to moving out of Casa Linus seven months ago.
Turning her back on him, she started for Duval.
She’d traveled just a few steps when her father caught arm and yanked her back hard. She fell against the brick building dropping her purse and the sack of sandwiches.
“I gave you a choice.” He squeezed her forearm until it hurt. “But of course, you made the wrong one. You’re doing this to spite me, aren’t you? For sending your little boyfriend away. Did he do this to you to get even with me?”
“Is he influencing you? You are so easily lead, April. You have no spine. I swear when I find out who impregnated you…” He let the ominous threat hang in the air.
April gripped her stomach as it churned with a fresh wave of nausea. This was the side of her father she could believe was an international arms dealer. This was why she couldn’t go home again. Once she’d stumbled onto the truth about his criminal activities, there was no going back ever. This was why she had to keep her baby’s father’s identity a secret at all costs.
“Get in the car.” Philip pulled her away from the wall and dragged her toward the SUV’s open door.
“Daddy, stop. Please!” She dug her heels into the sidewalk and grabbed her lower back, panting through the nagging pain. “I don’t want to give up my baby.”
“Let her go,” a deep male voice said behind her. He was so large he blocked the sun casting a broad shadow over them.
Philip’s grip loosened slightly as his face lit with surprise. “What’s this?”
“You heard her, Papi,” said a much lighter voice. “Let Mama Kitty go. Carly don’t play.”
April turned around to find the gigantic drag queen in all her fabulous glory sporting a baseball bat in her white gloved hands like she knew how to use it.
The blue sedan’s car doors started to open.
“No, don’t,” April said, begging her father not to hurt them. They meant well. They didn’t know what was going on or the danger they were putting themselves in. “They’re just trying to help.”
Juanita moved to April’s side and slipped her arm around her waist. “We don’t want any trouble, but a chica’s got the right to say no.”
“I’m her father and this is none of your business.”
“It’s none of yours either, Papi. She gets to live her life how she wants to live it.”
Philip’s gaze flicked from Juanita to the pleading expression on April’s face. He waved a hand and the car doors closed again. He shook his head. “You’re making a terrible mistake.”
Tears leaked from her eyes. “I don’t think I am.”
Philip glanced at Carly who still held the bat like she was pinch-hitting for the Miami Marlins and let go of April’s wrist. “Then I have nothing more to say to you, except that your mother would be so disappointed. She had higher hopes for you, as did I.”
When he started for the SUV, April panicked. “Daddy, wait.”
“You’re cut off, April.” He didn’t turn around. “You’ve made your choice. You’re an orphan now.”
“Daddy, please!” She took a stunted step in his direction.
“Let him go, my love.” Carly lowered the bat and rested it against the wall. “You can’t change him.”
“But…” April’s voice trailed off as her stomach swelled and a cramp pinched her just above her right hipbone. She rubbed the aching spot. “But he’s the only family I have.”
Carly touched April’s shoulder and squeezed it gently as they watched the car drive off.
“You are more than welcome to join our little dysfunctional family, my dear. We’re orphans, too. My parents are dead, and Juanita is the oldest of twelve children but her strict Catholic family won’t let her come home until she’s happily married to a woman.”
“As if…” Juanita sniffed. She gave April a sideways hug. “You can spend all the important holidays with us. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Cinco di mayo—”
Carly cocked an eyebrow. “Cinco di mayo?”
“Absolutely. Any day involving margaritas and a large Mexican burrito is a divine day on my calendar.”
Carly rolled her eyes. “I hope you don’t mind being related to a man-whore.”
April chuckled through her tears and swiped the wetness from her cheeks. They were right, of course. She wasn’t alone. She had friends who were like family… Molly, Anders, Cheyenne, and these two wonderful people who were willing to adopt her.
And the little one growing inside of her, he was her family now too.
“Thank you both so much.” April took a deep breath. Her back wasn’t hurting quite as badly now, but her belly felt tight and heavy. She really needed to sit down. She took another deep breath, but it was more difficult this time. She grabbed Carly’s surprisingly buff gloved forearm for support.
An auditable pop between her legs accompanied instant relief from the pressure in her lower abdomen. A stream of warm water wet her panties trickling down her inner thighs.
“Oh!” April gasped. “I think I peed my pants.”
Juanita’s warm brown eyes twinkled. “No, Mama Kitty. Your water just broke.”