Chapter One


Ginger Peet took one look at the offending piece of plastic in her hand and hurled it clear across the room. It was reflex. An unconscious action. If she’d have held it a second longer, it surely would have set her hand on fire. She watched the object bounce off her chest of drawers and slide to a stop at the base of her life-size Dolly Parton statue. For once, the giant porcelain likeness of her idol offered zero comfort, the Smoky Mountain Songbird’s frozen smile taking on more of a smirking quality that Ginger definitely did not appreciate. Not now, when she’d just gotten the shock of a lifetime.

Considering some of the shocks she’d been dealt in her lifetime, especially in the last year, that was truly saying something.

“Well, Dolly?” Ginger plopped down hard on the wooden floor, the heels of her cowboy boots making a loud clunk. “No clever, down-home advice for me? You’re just going to stand there and act all high and mighty? I didn’t plan for this to happen, you know.” She breathed a sigh. “I don’t mean it, Dolly. I’m just upset, is all.”

Of course, the statue kept quiet, although when Ginger looked away for a split second, she swore it tilted its head to the left. On hands and knees, Ginger crawled across the room and without touching the object, leaned down and squinted at it, hoping she’d been wrong the first time.

Nope. Still knocked up.

She rolled over onto her back, staring blindly at the ceiling. “How did this happen?” Okay, that time she didn’t imagine the statue’s head tilt. Right? “I mean, I know how this happens. I worked in a bar for seven years. You pick up a thing or two listening to people piss away their troubles over whiskey. But we were so damn careful.”

A flush crept up her neck as a barrage of scenes starring her and Lieutenant Derek Tyler, her boyfriend of nearly a year, blurred together in her mind, starting the week she, Willa, and Dolly had moved in next door. They’d been on the lam, having fled Nashville to escape their dire circumstances. A cop had been her last choice in a neighbor. He’d wasted no time making his intentions clear. Very clear. She shook her head to dispel the visions of their naked, writhing bodies on various surfaces. “Don’t look at me like that,” she said to Dolly. “I remember that time at the Laundromat. And that weekend in Miami last month…”

Ginger slapped her palm to her forehead. Derek had surprised her with a last-minute trip to South Beach, having finally wrapped up a major case and deciding to take his very first vacation since joining the force. Never having been to Florida, let alone on a vacation, she’d forgotten her birth control pills in the excited rush to pack. At first, they’d been careful about using condoms, but there’d been that one single time. And wasn’t that always the way it happened? That afternoon they’d spent on the beach, sipping mojitos. Swimming in the ocean, slipping against one another’s wet bodies, tempting, heightening the anticipation. He’d growled over her choice of a purple string bikini, but she’d felt the effect it had on him. Hadn’t wasted any opportunities to brush against him with her barely covered bottom, wrapping her legs around his waist, leaning over his impressively muscled chest to apply sunscreen.

By the time they stumbled, kissing and petting each other, into the hotel room, they’d been in a sexual frenzy. She’d been pulled down onto the floor, just inside their hotel room door. Her purple bikini had been torn from her body, baring her bottom to receive the mighty slap of Derek’s palm…he’d been inside her before they remembered he hadn’t worn a condom. By then, nothing short of a tsunami could have stopped them. Ginger remembered it clear as a bell, as if it had taken place five minutes ago instead of six weeks prior. There had been an illicitness to their lovemaking, as if the risk were adding a whole new element. Knowing they were gambling, in a sense, had made them twice as wild.

He’d finished with a roar, then flipped her over and taken her again. Harder.

Ginger cleared her throat in the silent room. “Well. I seem to have sorted out the when and I’ll be keeping it to myself, Dolly, if you don’t mind. Now on to the why now.” She glanced over at the framed picture of her and Derek that sat on her bedside table. Derek kissing her forehead, arms wrapped around her protectively. Always protecting. So solid and reassuring. The picture had been taken by Willa, her photographer younger sister, when they were both unaware. It was the main reason she loved the picture. No posing or false smiles. Just the two of them as they were at that moment. Happy. At peace.

Would this unexpected news change that? Yes, they loved each other. Yes, this last year, without question, had been the happiest in her twenty-four years. But this…a baby…it would change everything. They’d never even discussed having children. Although to be fair, she suspected Derek would avoid that topic at the risk of sending her screaming for the hills. He knew every gory detail about her shitty upbringing, her issues surrounding family. Her mother had been a drug addict and a prostitute who’d turned tricks in their living room. Not exactly a shining example of motherhood in all its glory.

One of the insecurities she and Derek had set out to overcome was her intense fear of commitment. After watching her mother being used and discarded regularly, she’d never envisioned herself in a relationship. She’d only moved in with Derek a few months ago and while she loved him to an astonishing degree, it had been a monumental decision for her. The stubborn man had all but tricked her into it. A baby epitomized commitment. A lifetime’s worth of it. She wasn’t sure she was ready for that kind of thing. Even if she was…what about Derek?

She thought of herself nine months pregnant, wearing maternity clothes to accommodate her swollen belly. And allowed the tiny niggle of worry to creep in at the image. At age fourteen, she’d realized men liked the way she looked. Sure, she’d used it to her advantage. Even while luring Derek into what she’d thought would be a purely physical encounter. She didn’t waste a moment regretting it, either. Use what you’ve got had been the words she’d lived by for so long. But since breaking free of her past and taking control of her life, she’d stopped relying on them. Her body’s shape didn’t define her anymore. Her self-confidence had grown exponentially since moving to Chicago and meeting Derek.

She was now a businesswoman. An actual role model to the sister she loved. Yet…she always knew the looks were at her disposal if she needed them. And perhaps a small, leftover part of her past self was worried that Derek wouldn’t want her as much with cankles. She hated thinking that way. It was vain and silly. And yet.

“You understand, right, Dolly? You never leave the house without your sequined bustier and blond wig.” Okay, now that time the statue definitely shook its head disapprovingly. Pregnancy was apparently already taking its toll on her sanity. “Don’t look at me like that. Everyone knows about the wigs and no one here is judging you. Especially the pregnant lady talking to a damn statue.”

Raising a baby was simply not in her wheelhouse. While she may have grown emotionally and shed most of her hang-ups, it didn’t mean she was ready for another human being to be completely dependent on her. She’d managed to raise Willa, now majoring in photography in college, through trial and error. Lord knew she’d made plenty of mistakes along the way. There’d been no time to prepare for this. Copyright 2016 - 2024