Captain Matt Peterson prides himself on being able to handle anything...until he winds up as the guardian of his baby niece, Lulu. Two years and six nannies later, his well-ordered existence is in chaos. Still, he
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"To not doing anything stupid," Regan said, raising her glass.
Darcy scowled in response but clinked her own glass of white wine against her friend's.
"To staying out of trouble," Summer added, clicking hers gently against the other two.
This time Darcy plonked her glass down on the table, spilling wine over her fingers, and eyed her two best friends. "I'm not going to do anything stupid," she growled. "We're just here to have a drink and a good time. What's the big deal?"
Regan snorted. "Hah. The word stalker comes to mind."
"I'm not stalking him." She picked up her glass, swallowing the contents in one go as the now familiar sense of frustration tightened around her. "Okay, maybe I am stalking him. A little bit. But it's his fault. If he'd been reasonable, then I wouldn't have to do this." She glanced around the nightclub — it really wasn't her sort of scene. "Where the hell is he?"
"Just calm down," Summer said. "Don't get worked up. You know bad things happen when you get worked up."
Darcy snarled, and Summer giggled. It was good to see her so happy. Both of them. Regan positively glowed. But then, inconceivable as it seemed, they were both in love.
She was closer to these two women than she'd ever been to anyone in her life. Though she still found it hard to believe. They were all so different. In normal circumstances, they would have never met, and if they had, they would have no doubt just walked away. But it was hard to walk away when you were locked together in a twelve-by-twelve room for most of the day and night.
They'd met while sharing a prison cell in Holloway, and from the start, she'd been wary of them. Regan had seemed too cocky and Summer too shy. Besides, she'd been going through her bitter and twisted "life's unfair" stage and hadn't been inclined to be friendly. It was Summer who had brought them together. She clearly didn't fit in, had seemed way too good for that place, and Darcy had been sure she wouldn't make it through her whole sentence. Somehow, she and Regan had found themselves in the roles of protectors, only to discover that Summer possessed a core of steel, despite her fragile air.
They'd all made a vow that they were never going back to prison and a promise to one another to provide support. Darcy had offered them both a place to stay when they got out. There was a three-bedroom flat above the gym she owned in central London. Though, while they were officially still sharing, these days Regan and Summer spent more time with their men than at home. But they all made a point to meet at least once a week.
Their lives were going so well.
Hers, on the other hand, was a whole big pile of crap.
Which she would never get out from under unless she found some way to put the guilt behind her. Two months out of prison, she was still no closer to her goal. She wanted to be happy for her friends, but everything was such a mess. And she'd been putting off this confrontation, partly because the couple of times she'd actually gotten her nerve up to confront the man, it was only to find he was off in some foreign land.
How the hell was he looking after her niece, Lulu, if he wasn't even in the same country?
"Hey," Summer said, interrupting her bad thoughts. "Things will work out."
"Yes," Regan added. "They will. So get that scowl off your face. It doesn't go with your pretty dress."
She glanced down at herself and felt her scowl deepen. She was wearing a white sundress printed with blue flowers that she'd borrowed from Regan. It wasn't her style. And a real honest-to-God cardigan — also borrowed — over the top. She couldn't remember ever wearing a cardigan in her life before. But it did an excellent job of covering up her tattoos. She needed to make a good impression. And she really hated that. She wasn't ashamed of who or what she was, but she'd allowed Regan and Summer to persuade her into the disguise. Her normally spiky hair was smoothed back, and she'd taken out her nose stud. She could cope with all those. The real killer was the heels. Why the hell would anyone wear goddamn heels? It made no sense.
"Still scowling," Regan murmured.
She closed her eyes for a moment and took a few deep, calming breaths, sending the bitterness back down deep inside her and locking it in. She could handle this. All she had to do was let him see she wasn't some sort of violent monster. Get him to agree to meet her so they could talk like sensible adults.
"Where the hell is he?" she asked for the hundredth time, staring at the door as if she could will him to appear. "Are you sure he'll be here tonight?"
"Are you questioning my private-eye skills? Or rather, Nate's private-eye skills?"
Nate was Regan's fiancé. An ex-detective who'd given up his career to be with Regan. They were in the process of setting up a security company together, and Nate had done a little checking into Captain Mathew Peterson for her.
"No. I'm sure Nate's the best."
"Oh, he is," Regan answered with a smug smile. She raised her hand to a waiter, and a minute later, the man brought a replacement bottle and took away the empty one. Regan poured them all a glass. "Have a drink, and if he doesn't come, we will just drink some more, and dance, and have a good time. And tomorrow, you'll go see him like a normal person, and not like a stalker."
"Dance?" she said. "You're joking. I'm more likely to trip and break my neck in these heels."
But what if she went to his house and he still refused to see her. They'd only communicated so far through his lawyer, who had told Darcy that under no circumstances would she be allowed to be part of Lulu's life.
Lulu was her two-and-a-half-year-old niece, the only family Darcy had left; it certainly wasn't fair. But what was? And she had to concede that things looked bad. She'd spent nearly three years in prison for supposedly attacking Lulu's now dead father.
Mathew Peterson's brother.
What worried her the most was that they had the same genes. Maybe he was just as big a bastard as his brother had been. And he had custody of Lulu. She had to find out. She owed it to her sister. And once she had, maybe she could put this all behind her and learn how to move on.
She forced herself to relax. She needed to be calm, cool, and collected. It was still early, and they'd snagged an empty table, though she'd been too wound up to sit. Now she perched herself on a stool where she could see the door. Regan sat next to her, and Summer opposite.
The door yielded a steady trickle of people, and she relaxed a little ... which meant she was totally unprepared. She'd been about to take a sip of wine, and the glass froze halfway to her mouth. A large group entered together. They weren't in uniform, but she would have taken them for military even if she hadn't known. This was a stag night, but they were all dressed smartly, with short, military-style hair-cuts. All well-built. Her gaze homed in on him straight away. He was the image of his brother, and a wave of hatred washed through her. Her hand was shaking, and she put the glass down slowly.
Summer, who had been talking them through the arrangements for her up-and-coming wedding, fell silent and twisted on her stool. "Is he here?" she asked.
Darcy didn't take her eyes off him. "He's the one on the far right."
"Holy moly," Regan muttered. "I saw a photo, but it didn't do him justice. He's stunning."
"He looks like Steven."
Regan reached out and patted her arm. "I'm sorry, sweetie. But that doesn't mean he's the same sort of man."
Darcy could feel her heart beating slow and hard. She swallowed and made herself look at him objectively. There were actually significant differences. She knew he was a couple of years older than Steven, but he looked younger. Years of self-indulgence had taken their toll on Steven, who'd been slightly overweight. There wasn't an ounce of spare fat on this man. He was long and lean. At least six-foot-three and dressed in black pants and a black shirt. Short black hair, and even across the length of the club, she could see his blue eyes.
He'd been talking to the man beside him, but now, he paused, as though he could sense her watching. He turned and stared straight at her. His face was all hard lines, his nose big and bony, high cheekbones and a mouth ... On Steven, that mouth had looked sulky and self-indulgent, but on this man, it looked ... Jesus.
Get a grip.
Summer leaned in close. "He's staring at you," she whispered.
"No, he isn't."
Yes, he is.
And his stare was causing queer tingles in her stomach. Hatred. Yes, that's what it was. Maybe undeserved, but she knew she would never be able to look at this man objectively. His brother had as good as murdered her sister. How could she ever forget that?
And why would she want to?
Except that if she wanted to get to know Lulu, she needed this man's cooperation.
Breaking the link, she looked away. She picked up her wine, swallowed it in one gulp, then leaned across and filled her glass again. When she finally glanced back, the group had moved on, and he was gone from her sight.
She exhaled. She'd always thought herself to be so tough. She was the one in charge. She'd always known what to do. Now, she was floundering in a swamp of doubt.
"Are you okay?" Regan asked.
"I'm fine." She forced a smile. "It was just a bigger shock seeing him than I expected. He's so like Steven. Yet, not really. Where are they?" She didn't want to be obvious and turn around and search for him.
"At the bar, behind you. And he's still looking."
"He's probably sensing the waves of hatred."
"Maybe. But he looks ... interested."
Christ, that was the last thing she needed. She'd sworn off men until she got her life in order. She hadn't missed sex. Hadn't thought about it in a long time. There was too much else on her mind. Now, for the first time in years, she was aware of her body, and a surge of longing rose inside her, drowning out the logical arguments.
Longing for some sort of physical connection.
But with this man?
Never going to happen.
Things had to be kept on a business-like footing.
But she could almost feel his eyes staring into her back.
"What's he doing?" she asked.
"Drinking beer. Talking. Looking at you." Regan raised a brow. "So what was the plan again?"
Plan? Had there been a plan? Her brain had turned to mush. What the hell had she been thinking? That this was neutral ground? That she'd take him by surprise, tell him who she was, and dazzle him with what a "nice" person she obviously was? Get him to agree to talk to her?
Instead, she sat frozen in place.
"Can we buy you girls a drink?"
The voice came from behind her. She knew instinctively it wasn't her prey.
Summer's eyes widened in panic, and she looked to Darcy, eyebrows raised, as if to say what the hell do we do?
Regan answered. She raised her hand, showing off the dazzling diamond engagement ring, and waved her other hand at Summer. "I'm afraid we're taken."
"What about your friend?"
"What about our friend?" Regan looked at her, her lips twitching. Yeah, she was so funny. "Darcy?"
But she couldn't think of a thing to say. So she just glared at Regan.
"She's not feeling too well," Summer said.
Summer was such an angel. And Regan was a bitch. What the hell had she ever seen in her?
"Okay," the man said. "Maybe later."
She sensed him walk away. And her head dropped to the table. She banged it a couple of times. Then she sat up straight. "What the hell am I doing?" Other than making a total ass of herself. "This was a huge mistake."
"They're going back," Regan said. "Talking to him. My God, I think they're trying to set the two of you up."
"I think we should leave," she said, pushing herself to her feet. "I'm just going to the ladies' room. I need to ..." What did she need? Her stomach churned. and her face was burning. She needed water. Preferably a bucket poured over her head to jolt some sense into her brain. "I'll see you outside."
She thought Regan was about to argue, but she must have seen something in her face, and she gave a quick nod. "I think you're right. This isn't the time or place for this."
They'd warned her. Both of them. But she'd just been desperate to do something, anything. And the lawyer had been adamant that she should go nowhere near his house. But tomorrow, lawyer or not, she would visit him at his home and try to explain.
The club had gotten busier, the dance floor crowded, the music louder, and she had to push her way through. She had the ladies' room to herself, and she splashed water on her face and stared at herself for a few seconds. She looked like a stranger. A pale stranger.
Three years ago, she'd lost her temper and made a mistake. Her sister had paid for that mistake with her life. Darcy was still paying. Before that, she'd always felt in control. Now everything was getting away from her. She didn't know herself anymore, and she hated that.
As she came out, she glanced at their table — Regan and Summer were gone — and she made a beeline for the entrance, taking care not to look over at the group by the bar.
She almost banged into a man as he stepped out in front of her. His hands came out, and she flinched under his touch. She backed away, and her ankle twisted in the unfamiliar heels. Only his grip on her arms kept her upright.
It had to be him. Because that was the way her shitty, crappy luck was working at the moment. She could pull free, whirl around, kick him in the stomach, and run. But that might be hard to explain tomorrow when she went and tried to present herself as a sensible, suitable aunt for her niece. She was hoping to pass tonight off as coincidence.
Was she totally deluded?
Regan and Summer were right; this was beyond crazy. More evidence that she'd lost the plot completely.
She stared at the floor for a few seconds, then set a smile on her face and looked up, straight into his dark blue eyes.
His gaze fixed on her face. "My friends won't leave me alone unless I ask you to dance."
For a second, the words didn't make sense. She shook her head. "Sorry, I have to go."
He grinned. "Come on, just one. Then they'll stop harping at me."
She needed to pull herself together. Maybe this was fate. A chance to introduce herself. He obviously liked the look of her. She should take advantage of that. What was the worst he could do — accuse her of being a stalker? Yup. Report her? That could cause big trouble with her parole.
She was taking too long to answer. And he clearly took that as a yes. His hands slid down her arms, then his palms were against hers as he took her hands and pulled her closer.
Thoughts swirled in her head, but none of them made sense.
"You were watching me." He murmured the words in her ear, and she realized how close they were. She meant to push him away, but somehow her hands came up, pressing themselves flat against his chest. "I could feel you from the moment I walked in the door," he continued. "Did you like what you saw?"
She swallowed, her throat too dry for words. In a minute, she'd get up her nerve and she'd tell him —
Her thoughts broke off as his hands slid to her waist, and he pulled her even closer. She was tall for a woman, but still a head shorter than him and her hot face pressed against his throat.
As she breathed in the warm, masculine scent, she tried to slow her racing heart. Her hands were trapped between them, but she could get away easily. Christ, she ran a self-defense class for women; she knew exactly what to do. But she made no move. Because if she did this wrong, it would be the end of her chances. She might not get another one.
His body was hard against her. How long had it been since she'd been in a man's arms? Not since before she'd been locked up. His scent, his closeness, the wine she'd had ... all mingled, and for a moment, she gave in to the lure of that physical connection she'd craved and relaxed against him.
He must have sensed her surrender, because his hands slid down to her ass and he pulled her closer. He was already hard, his erection nudging her, and things twisted low in her belly.
She had to move.
Get out of there.
This wasn't supposed to be happening. But somehow her hands slid up over his chest and gripped his shoulders. They weren't dancing, just swaying to the music, causing a delicious friction between their bodies, so her breasts tingled, and a little pulse throbbed between her thighs.
He stopped moving.
She wanted to scream. But what? Before she could decide, he released her, stepped back, and pulled a phone out of his pocket. He glanced at the screen.
"Shit," he muttered, then looked into her face. "Sorry. It's my babysitter. I have to leave."
She cleared her throat, thoughts of Lulu jolting her into awareness. "Is something wrong?"
"No, just a family thing." He appeared about to say something, but then gave a small shake of his head. "It was nice dancing with you."
"Yeah." Really nice.
Excerpted from "The Bad Girl and the Baby"
Copyright © 2017 Nina Croft.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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