Read Raising The Stakes (Heartwarming Romance) Online

Authors: Karen Rock

Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Fiction, #Domestic Life, #Family Life, #Military, #Adirondack Woods, #Safety, #Dark Memories, #Bronx, #Danger, #Orphaned Bear Cub, #Conservation Officer, #Poachers, #Peaceful World, #Rehabilitating, #Support, #Courage, #Tragic Past Events, #Compassion, #Clean Romance, #Heartwarming

Raising The Stakes (Heartwarming Romance) (5 page)

BOOK: Raising The Stakes (Heartwarming Romance)
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“Thank you, dear.”

“You’re lucky to get it. We’re usually out by noon.”

“Guess my years of service come in handy sometimes.” She smiled at the ceiling. “Got an in with the big guy.”

“More like good karma,” Brett spoke up, lifting his red, wooden-bead necklace and shaking it before wiping down a table.

“You’ve got a nice place here.” Officer Walsh scanned the room, the lights picking up auburn strands in his dark hair.

“We think so. This is my partner, Maggie Wilson.”

Maggie smiled, a winsome turn of her lips that pulled in more customers than the raisin pie. “Hello. I’ve heard so much about you.”

Officer Walsh’s gaze slid to Vivie. “I’m sure. Can we have a word, Vivie? In private.”

“Not interested.”

Maggie laced her fingers in Vivie’s and squeezed. “Hear him out,” her friend whispered in her ear. “He’s seems sincere.”


Not
interested,” Vivie repeated under her breath.

“You never are. That’s the problem.” Her partner sighed, then gave her a little shove. “We can manage these out-of-control customers, can’t we Rowdy?”

A grunt sounded from the kitchen as he passed a slice of pie with ice cream through the open window. Maggie grabbed it and turned to Vivie, her eyes a warm gold. “Go outside. We’ll hold down the fort.”

“You have my blessing.” The nun made some kind of motion in the air with her fork, then tucked back into her pie.

Vivie glanced between her so-called friends—the traitors—and grabbed her purse. After hearing the officer out, she’d want to go home. Deal with it. Officer Walsh hurried to the door and held it open when she reached it.

Outside, in the soft, spring night, it was hard to observe this handsome man and imagine his horrible deed. His hands might be clean, but there was blood on them. Crickets sang a funeral dirge in the nearby bushes, and the rushing flap of bat wings swirled the air into a living thing.

“Look. I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t want to see you right now.” She glowered up at him, wishing he’d leave.

His eyes delved into hers. “Vivie, the bear’s—”

“Please leave. I don’t need the details.”

When she turned, clouds drifted away from the full moon, turning the world into a black-and-white movie. Officer Walsh—Liam—leaned against his SUV, his hat sitting low on his forehead, his face looking as tired as she felt. Maybe he wasn’t enjoying this. Was just doing his job.

Despite everything, she softened toward him. “Fine. If this is some job requirement, a mandatory update to the original caller, then let’s get this over with. What happened?”

She wished she could put her fingers in her ears, block out the words about to be spoken.

“The cub’s at the Adirondack Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. My friends, Steve and Wendy Reed, agreed to take her for the week.”

Surprise forked through her, as electric as lightning. “I don’t understand. You didn’t kill her?”

His lips quirked upward but his eyes remained sober. “No. I considered what you said. We’re going to save her. If you’re still in.”

He held out a hand and she slipped hers into it, heat flooding up her arm. Unbelievable. Elation filled her. The bear was hers. Whatever Officer Walsh had said about releasing her, or finding her another home someday, didn’t matter. For now, the cub was coming home. To her home.

“I’m in, Officer Walsh.” She turned on her heel and hurried away. After a few steps she stopped and whirled. “And thank you. Thank you so much. This means...” she struggled for a moment “...a lot.”

His smile reached all the way to his eyes. “We might both regret it.”

“Never!”

“Where are you going?” he called when she reached her pickup. “I was hoping we could talk more over pie.”

“Call me tomorrow. In the meantime, Maggie will fix you up.” She inserted her key and opened the door. Those two would hit it off. As for her, she had more important priorities than socializing, especially with a DEC officer. He might have spared the bear, but that didn’t mean they had the same outlook when it came to caring for wildlife. Not even close.

She hopped in her truck then leaned out her open window, catching her own grin in the side mirror.

“I’ve got a test to ace.”

CHAPTER FOUR

L
IAM
MOPPED
HIS
dripping brow and leaned on the two-by-four he’d just nailed into place. He glanced around Vivie’s transformed backyard. Soon the excavated site would hold the cub’s pen. He’d poured the concrete forms yesterday—the resulting foundation walls were set a foot deep in the ground. He’d secure the nine-gauge chain-link fencing to them, and that, combined with the electrified overhang, would keep the little one secure.

But how to protect Vivie? She’d been hovering like a gnat these past couple of days. Was he sure forty feet was enough room? Was the waterfall flowing into a shallow pool a safe water supply? Did he need to cover the chain link with plywood, keeping the bear from seeing humans?

Yes to all three—especially the last one.

He hefted another piece of lumber, positioned it and began hammering. Despite the nonstop studying, which had put shadows beneath her eyes, Vivie still didn’t grasp that the cub’s time here was temporary. Once it could fend for itself, assuming its jaw healed, they’d release it to the forest. A return to the wild home it deserved. But he knew Vivie’s attachment would grow once she cared for the bear and she’d end up with a broken heart.

He swore when the hammer smashed his thumb instead of the wood. Rubbing his throbbing digit, he glanced around the area. Above him, a maple tree in the center of the enclosure rustled softly in the breeze. He’d left it uncut, save for the branches approaching the overhang. The bear would enjoy climbing on it and swinging from the tire he’d hung from lower branches. The rest of the toys, including a rubber turtle that squeaked whenever he stepped on it, he wasn’t so sure about. But like some obsessed mother-to-be, Vivie returned from work each day with new goodies to toss into the pen. She’d even had a handmade sign crafted, the name Button burned into its wood. It hung over the snug wood-sided shelter he’d built to protect the young animal from the elements.

“Looking good, Liam,” a familiar voice called. He turned, ignoring the leap of his pulse at the beauty approaching him. Vivie. Her toffee-colored hair swung in a high ponytail, exposing a long, graceful neck. A backpack hung from one golden shoulder.

“Thanks. How are things at The Homestead?”

“Slow.” Vivie perched on the concrete and held up a cardboard container. “Thought you might like some lunch.”

He scanned the blue sky, seeing the midday sun glaring on his neck. “Hadn’t realized it was that time. I appreciate it.”

Once seated, he pulled out a cheeseburger and swallowed a quarter of it in one bite. Man, he was hungry. Thirsty, too. No sooner had the thought occurred than she passed him a water bottle.

“Filled it up at Cold Creek spring on my way over here.”

He closed his eyes in appreciation as the pure, icy liquid splashed down his throat. It was better than any manufactured drink. No matter how much man imitated, Mother Nature had the best recipe.

“How’s the cub doing?” he asked after another bite. The tart pickle and crispy bacon woke up his taste buds.

Vivie pushed back a stray piece of hair, the faintest gleam of moisture on her forehead. For late May, it was already hot.

“Saw the Reeds before I went in this morning and they let me feed Button,” she said. “She’s still drinking the formula since her jaw’s not right yet.”

He frowned. With the bear struggling to eat, he understood human contact was needed. Still, that would only make Vivie more attached. Given the light in her eyes, this seemed like a lost battle—not that he’d quit trying to make her see sense.

“Once she’s in the pen, you’ll feed her through a chute. Don’t let her get used to humans. If she does, a successful release will be impossible.”

She nodded automatically, her eyes roaming the green mountain peaks in the distance. “Do we have to board up all sides? She should be able to see nature, especially if she’s going to return to it, so it doesn’t seem totally foreign.”

“Sounds good as long as it’s facing away from you and the house. This—” Liam gestured to the partial construction “—is only a temporary home.” He pointed to a patch of berry bushes bordering the forest that ringed her property. “That is her real habitat. Never forget it.”

“How could I?” she asked drily. “You never let up on it.”

“You wanted this.” He crumpled his napkin and closed the now-empty container. “If it was up to me—”

“Button wouldn’t have had a second chance,” she muttered so quietly he had to lean close to catch it. Her light floral scent reminded him of their wild surroundings. For a moment, he closed his eyes and breathed her in.

“Unfair, Vivie.” He stood and brushed a maple seedpod from his pants. “I’ve worked here every day to make this possible.”

She scrambled to her feet, her expression earnest. The gold flecks in her light brown eyes gleamed. “I know. And I’m grateful every time I wake up and hear you outside. But I wish you wouldn’t be so hard on me. And Button.”

“I’m doing what’s right. Not what’s easy.” He watched a couple of rabbits grazing on white-topped clover. That was the future he wanted for the cub. He glanced back at the lumber pile. Not one that stole her freedom.

Vivie nodded and picked up another hammer. “What can I do?”

He blinked in surprise. In her blue sundress, the short hem fluttering around her legs, she resembled a princess. Not a construction worker.

“Know anything about carpentry work?” Since it was a rhetorical question, her nod caught him off guard.

“One of my stepdads had a contracting business. I can even do roofing.”

“Roofing...” he repeated, imagining her slipping on an angled roof and breaking something. He shook off the image.

“You had more than one stepfather?” he asked once he’d passed her some nails and they’d begun hammering.

“Six,” she mumbled around a mouthful of nails. Did the woman have no concern for her safety?

He unbuckled his tool belt and wrapped it around her narrow hips, his fingers a little unsteady when they grazed her. “You’re going to choke if you keep them in your mouth. Put them in the pouch.”

She spit the nails into her hand and dropped them into the pocket. “Okay, Mr. Doom and Gloom.”

“I’d rather be Sir Reality Check, if you don’t mind.”

Her eye roll said it all. “Your reality, I guess.” She resumed hammering. “Sir.”

He picked up more nails and stuffed them into his jeans pockets. “So, six stepfathers, huh? Sounds rough.” He couldn’t deny his curiosity about Vivie. She’d surprised him at every turn.

“Yeah. I guess.”

Finished with the board, they moved to the pile of lumber and carried another two-by-four to the next spot. He steadied it in place while she expertly sank nails in its base. Her aim was dead-on and the nails disappeared into the wood after two or three hits. Was it his imagination or was she smashing them harder than ever?

He knew he should leave the topic alone, but something fragile in her tone brought out his protective streak. Had she been hurt?

“Where’s your mom now?”

Her hammer slammed dead center into another nail and buried it in one blow. “Don’t know. Haven’t spoken to her in ten years.”

With her lips pressed together and her eyes narrow, all signs indicated he should change the subject, but somehow he couldn’t.

“Why’s that?”

“She didn’t exactly leave a forwarding number when she walked out on me and her latest husband.”

That sounded hard. “And how old were you?”

She stopped and gulped from her water bottle. After a long drink, she wiped her mouth and met his eyes. “Seventeen. Any more questions, Hardy boy?”

He pulled off his sweaty T-shirt. “Not really.” He began nailing another board. “Just passing time.”

Only he wasn’t. Every moment with Vivie intrigued him. He looked forward to seeing her more than he dared admit. More than was good for his peace of mind. Like her, he shouldn’t get attached...especially if he got that job in Yellowstone Park. He wondered when the résumé he’d emailed would get a response.

She moved around him and held the next piece of wood as he secured it to the foundation. “So how about you? Did you grow up with the white picket fence? Have a dog and a sister?”

“A cat and six siblings. No fence, though the Korean vegetable market on the corner had a customers-only line we couldn’t cross. Especially after my sister Mary Ann filched a mango.”

She considered him, something spooked in her expression. “Sounds like you grew up in the city.”

He pressed the beam, testing its stability, then pounded in another nail for good measure. “SoHo. My family owns a pub there and we lived in an apartment above it. Most of them still do. Mary Ann’s getting married there in August.”

She lowered her hammer. “I lived in the city when I was in culinary school.”

“Yeah? What part?”

Her hand rose to her neck and her voice grew faint. “The Bronx.”

Before he could ask her more, she hurried on, “So all nine of you, plus a cat, in one apartment? That must have been cramped.”

He forced a shrug. It had been tough, but he’d been in tighter spots... The memory of Kunar punched his throat.

“My dad died when I was seventeen, so there were only eight of us. He was a Korean War vet. It inspired my twin, Niall, and I to join the military after 9/11.”

A soft hand fell on his arm and he studied her concerned eyes. “I’m sorry to hear that, Liam. Did your mother remarry?”

Spots appeared in the corners of his vision. He sat on a nearby stump and took another swig of water. “My mom has Alzheimer’s. My oldest brother, Aiden, pretty much raised the rest of us.” Crazy that he was telling her so much. He’d only ever opened up to his battle buddies. He stared down at the water bottle, his chest aching. Now those buddies were all gone...the nearest he could get to them was atop a mountain, where he felt closest to heaven.

Vivie plunked down by his feet and handed him a wrapped cookie from her backpack. “Aiden sounds like a great brother. Want one? Raisin oatmeal.”

He bit into the chewy dessert, grateful she’d switched subjects. “Good,” he said after polishing it off in two bites.

“Thanks. One of my stepdads owned a bakery. That’s where I got started making desserts.”

“Guess it wasn’t all bad then, your childhood.”

“There were worse things,” she muttered, almost to herself.

He tried catching her eye but she stared at a copse of papery-white birches. Her shuttered expression made her look guarded and breakable. Something bad had happened to her. But what? He clamped his mouth shut before he could ask. It wasn’t his business. She wasn’t his concern...so why couldn’t he stop thinking about her?

No good would come of it.

None at all.

* * *

T
HE
NEXT
EVENING
, Vivie curled up on her couch with her laptop. The farmhouse smelled pine fresh from the scrub she’d given it after her own soak in the tub. Laboring outside all afternoon, alongside a gorgeous, shirtless DEC officer no less, had been sweaty work. Not that she should be working herself into a lather over chiseled abs. This was the guy who’d almost killed Button.

And spared her
, a voice whispered in her head. Would another officer have given her, and the cub, this chance? She pictured Liam working every day this week in her backyard. He never complained. Didn’t seem to tire. Always showed up. It was a far cry from a lot of the men she’d known growing up. Still, she felt better keeping an eye on him, seeing him follow through on his promises.

She should have used the extra time preparing for her certification test, but she’d studied him instead. It made no sense, but she looked forward to working, eating and talking together. Learning about his childhood made her see the man more than the uniform.

She lifted her mug of mint tea and sipped. Her eyes glazed over as she reread, for the third time, question number two hundred and sixteen on the New York State Wildlife Rehabilitator certification practice test. This was hard. Much more challenging than she’d imagined when she’d vowed to pass it.

For the first time, doubt set in. The test was tomorrow and she’d still missed too many questions. What if she failed? Her heart stumbled to a halt. Without a home, would Button be put down after all? The bear’s temporary spot at the rescue center expired at the end of the week. Vivie was all she had.

Vivie gripped the mug handle. She couldn’t let Button down. The cub had kept going after the shooting, dislocated jaw and all. She hadn’t quit, and neither would Vivie.

She answered several more questions, relieved when she missed only three. Progress. For a reward, she tossed back a handful of chocolate. This had to work. Button deserved a safe home.

Didn’t everyone?

The thought brought her up short. Once, she wouldn’t have asked that question at all. Would have assumed that personal safety was a guarantee. Her mind flashed back to her last year in culinary school, the sudden hand over her mouth as she walked home from her late-night cooking job. How her masked attackers had tortured and tormented her, then left her for dead.

She shuddered and pushed away the thought. The journey to recovery had taken her too far to go back there.

When a sharp knock sounded on her front door, Jinx leaped from her lap and slunk under the piano bench. Vivie wished she could curl under there with her, but made her feet take her to the door. After the attack, her support group, Reclaim the Dark, had helped her think like a survivor. Not a victim.

She would not live her life afraid.

She eased open the door as far as the chain allowed and body blocked Scooter.

Liam’s leaf-green eyes shone under the porch light. “I was coming back from a rescue call and thought I’d stop by. See how you were doing with your studies.”

“What’d you rescue?”

His mouth pursed. “Another heron caught in a fishing line. It’ll be touch and go for the rehabilitator tonight.”

“That’s awful.” She unlocked the chain and let him in. Scooter leaped, putting both paws on Liam’s stomach.

The officer caught them in his hands and smiled down at the rambunctious dog. “Shall we dance?” he asked in such a formal tone that Vivie laughed, her mood lifting.

BOOK: Raising The Stakes (Heartwarming Romance)
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