Nick DeMarco was a covert operative who breezed in and out of the lives of the people he cared about often without warning. This included his sister Josie’s best friend, Lila Novak.
Nick and Lila had a torrid affair the last time he dropped into Barefoot Bay, and now that he’s back, possibly for the long haul, he hopes she’ll forgive him for disappearing without a word.
Lila loves her life as a teacher at Mimosa High School, but her affair with Nick has thrown her a curveball she never expected. Carrying his baby, she’s faced with the loss of her job unless she agrees to do the last thing she wants to do – marry him.
There were few things that ticked off Lila Novak more than busybodies. And when said busybodies were making her life difficult, that really chapped her ass.
She sat at the district office, having been summoned from Mimosa High School by the superintendent of schools, and while she waited she saw a parade of people enter the conference room. Her principal, the vice principal, the personnel director, and her department chair were all part of the group that was going to see her. This wasn’t good.
Nothing like kicking a girl when she was down.
Her department chair, Mary Chavez, poked her head out and motioned to Lila. “We’re ready for you. Don’t let them upset you, and don’t lose your temper.”
Mary was a sweet woman, a joy to work for. Because of her, the math department at Mimosa was a fun place to be. Her colleagues were friendly, and unlike some departments, they all liked each other. However, Mary knew Lila could have a smart mouth, and this wasn’t the time for wit. Even if some people deserved her wit shoved up their butts.
The superintendent sat at the far end of the table, and the other administrators flanked him left and right. This wasn’t going to be easy.
Lila stood at the other end of the large oval table. Alone.
“Lila, have a seat,” the big guy said.
“Thank you,” she replied. That was a load of shit. She had no reason to thank them.
“So,” he began. “We hear you’ve gotten yourself in a bad spot.”
This was really making him uncomfortable, and based on the scowls from a few others in the room, she was in more than a bad spot.
“Sir, I am pregnant, yes.” Lila took a deep breath before continuing. “I’ve tried to keep it private, but that’s hard to do in such a…close knit community.” It’s full of nosy women with nothing else to do, is what she wanted to say. But Lila held her tongue, knowing that sassing the superintendent and his minions wouldn’t help her cause. “While I’m sure it might make some people uncomfortable, it isn’t something I want to talk about.”
“Unfortunately, that’s not an option,” the personnel director broke in. She was new to the district, and Lila didn’t catch her first name, but her last name was Smith. “You have to talk about it. There is a clause in your contract regarding morality…”
Bile stuck in her throat. Sweet baby jeebus. A morality clause. It was the 21st century, wasn’t it? “I don’t understand.”
“We hold our teachers in very high regard,” the woman drawled. “And we’ve gotten a number of complaints about the situation. Parents are extremely upset about having an unwed, pregnant teacher in front of the classroom.”
A knot formed in Lila’s chest. Crushing breathlessness made her audibly suck in air, but she didn’t cry. No, she wouldn’t give this pit of vipers the satisfaction, but there was no hiding how this was affecting her.
No one seemed to care that she was in distress. They were all sitting very still, apparently awaiting Lila’s response.
“I see y’all staring at me, but I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“We thought you could offer some clarification, or explanation, so we can better understand how this all came about,” the nameless personnel director shot at her.
“Ma’am, if you want an explanation for my pregnancy, may I suggest you speak to a health teacher.” Yep. She just snapped at someone who held her fate in her hands.
“There’s no need to get snippy, young lady.”
“I’m sorry, but I believe there is.” Lila wasn’t going to be intimidated. “This is a private matter.”
“Who is the baby’s father?” Ms. Smith blurted out.
BOOM. There it was. That’s what they were driving at. There had been an ugly rumor about her and the father of one of her students. He’d made some unwanted advances in a bar. It didn’t matter that Lila had told him to buzz off; people had talked.
“I haven’t told the baby’s father yet, and I’m not comfortable telling you before I tell him.”
“Lila,” her chair began, “taking a hard line here isn’t going to help.”
“I’m sorry, but he’s overseas on assignment.” That was all Lila could come up with, and it might or might not have been true. She didn’t know where Nick DeMarco was. She hadn’t heard from him in months. “That’s all I can say.”
When she said he was overseas, everyone came to attention.
“Is he in the service of our country?” the superintendent asked.
Lila nodded. She didn’t know what Nick was doing, but he did work for the government. “I think I should tell him first, don’t you?”
“Lila, I don’t like this any more than you do, but something must be done. I have parents calling for your job.”
“Well, sir, with all due respect, you can tell them this is none of their business. I’m sure you’re aware that I am a very good teacher. My students are engaged and do very well.”
“I am. Your reputation in the classroom is excellent, but regardless of how accepting society has become of single parents, our teachers are held to a different standard. Parents are very upset.”
“Am I being dismissed?” There was no use in beating around the bush. If the decision had already been made, the time would be better spent polishing her resumé.
“I don’t want to do that, but I am in a difficult position.”
Of course. His contract was up for renewal. The last thing he needed was a bunch of parents complaining that he wasn’t responsive. If they started calling for his head, who knew how the board of education would respond? Lila didn’t know what she was expected to do. The baby was already in the picture.
“I guess you’ll let me know if I have a job, then?”
She started to get up from the chair when her department chair came to her defense. “Lila is one of our best teachers. Surely there’s a way for this to work out.”
Silence settled over the room, because no one seemed to have any answers. They were looking everywhere but at each other. Glancing off into space or keeping their eyes trained at the table. Except for Ms. Smith, who was staring at Lila. Now she didn’t know if she should leave or stay.
“Lila?” Her principal, Joe Alex, broke the quiet. “How is the clean-up from the fire going?”
That got everyone’s attention. Being a pity case wasn’t her first choice, but Lila would take it. She couldn’t be without a job. Especially not now.
The superintendent’s face dropped. He wasn’t a bad person, but he was a puppet. Now his conscience was getting to him. Lila just hoped it worked in her favor. “I’ll be in touch,” he said flatly. Then he stood and left the room, leaving Lila in the same place as she’d been before, without any answers.
“Motherfucker, that hurts.” Over the course of his career, Nick had been shot, stabbed, beaten, and thrown off the roof of the building. But the searing pain from the injection into his injured shoulder was like nothing he’d ever felt. Of course, he’d been unconscious after the stabbing, and the shooting, and during the beating he managed to throw a few punches himself. Getting thrown off a building? Not something he would recommend.
But he’d recovered from every injury. He’d come back to duty stronger than ever, almost like he had to prove himself. Rumor was some people wondered if he was even human. Nick had to laugh at that. Of course he was human, he just took his work seriously. There were a lot of bad people out in the world, and it was Nick’s job to make sure they didn’t hurt anyone.
This time, however, his shoulder had been almost completely ripped out of the socket. The damage had been repaired as much as it could be, but for the first time in his career, Nick didn’t know if he was going to be able to do his job like he had before.
There had been mutterings about a desk job. A fucking desk job. He couldn’t see himself settling into a regular routine, making assignments, even if it did carry a promotion. He was an adrenaline junkie, pure and simple, and if he wasn’t out in the field chasing bad guys, he didn’t know what he was going to do.
“So will the cortisone fix what ails me?”
The doctor shrugged. It was another resident, another no-name who didn’t know anything about him. To the guy in the scrubs, Nick was just another case. He didn’t understand that Nick’s life as he knew it was on the line.
“Dr. O’Neill will be in in a minute. He has more details about your next step.” Without another word, the drone doc left the room. At least he would get to talk to the guy who did the surgery. Maybe he would finally give Nick a straight answer.
His cell phone beeped, and he glanced at the screen. His sister. The text was short. Are you alive?
Nick smiled. Josie, as always, got to the point. This time, he answered. Sent back a simple: yes. But that was all she was gonna get for now.
He was still figuring out how he felt about her relationship with Tony. Never in his life had he suspected his best friend and his sister had been having an affair. Now, Josie was going to be a queen. An honest to God, crown-wearing, scepter-wielding queen. Okay, maybe that was too dramatic. But she would have a crown. His little sister would have a crown.
Nick lay back on the table, knees bent, arm folded over his eyes. Jesus. What if he couldn’t go back in the field? He’d never thought about life after fieldwork, but now it was the only thing on his mind.
He tried to focus on something good, something positive, and immediately Lila Novak’s face flashed in his memory. Talk about secrets. The four days he’d spent in bed with Josie’s best friend had been just what he needed. The woman was a contradiction; on one hand she was full of piss and vinegar, but on the other she was beautiful, smart, sweet, and the sex had been a friggin’ miracle. Nick thought about her a lot, probably too much.
Still, he wanted to see her. He figured whatever the doctor said, he’d head to Florida for some R&R. His grandparents’ house was empty, and while he was there he was sure he could get Lila to see him. As long as she wasn’t too pissed off. He’d left without saying goodbye, and in his experience women really hated that.
He expected Lila was no different.
The door burst open and Dr. O’Neill entered the space. A big man, career Army, Nick peeked out from under his arm and the doctor tossed a wry grin in his direction.
Colonel. He wasn’t used to being called by his rank. “Just trying to figure out what kind of bullshit you’ll be feeding me about my shoulder.”
“No bullshit,” the doctor said. “Truth only. Your shoulder was a hot mess. I was able to do some repair on the ligaments and tendons, but at this point it’s not stable. I can’t recommend you be allowed to go back to fieldwork at this time.”
“So, I’m going to be a desk jockey? I can’t do that. I’ll go crazy.” Nick’s fear of desk work was what drove him to volunteer for a special covert ops unit. He went where he was needed, working sometimes for the CIA, the NSA, or different branches of the military. When people asked what he did, he said he was a “security consultant”. It wasn’t a lie.
“You can stay in the Corps,” the doctor reassured him. “There are plenty of things a man with your knowledge and talents can do. You’re just not going to be swinging from trees or jumping off buildings anymore.”
“Should I retire? I mean, if I can’t do the work…”
“I didn’t say never, but not now. There’s a lot you can still do. Hell, with all your experience, you’ll be running the Joint Chiefs inside of six months. But you aren’t indestructible. You may recover enough to get back to the insanity you call a job, but I don’t recommend it.”
That particular statement made him think—and the conclusion wasn’t good. Lately, every injury meant a tougher recovery. He knew he was getting older, but his body was finally telling him what that meant. “Shit.”
The doctor took a seat across from him. “Nick, I’ve treated your last two orthopedic injuries. Your missions are more dangerous because that’s the way of the world right now, but even you have limits; you’re almost forty.”
“Thanks for the reminder.” Forty was still a couple of years away, but one thing Nick couldn’t deny was that he was feeling it.
Nick wasn’t a quitter, but he also wasn’t stupid. He knew when there was no point in arguing. He placed his feet solidly on the floor, stood, and extended his hand to O’Neill. “Thanks, Doc. I appreciate it.”
Shaking his hand, the older man wore an expression that told Nick he wasn’t the first to possibly have his career cut short and he wouldn’t be the last. But it still sucked.
Leaving the exam room, he took the stairs five flights down. He didn’t talk to anyone; it was raining, but he didn’t hail a cab, hoping the walk would clear his head. Finally, soaked to the bone, Nick jumped on the Metro. He was sure he looked sketchy, but he didn’t care. It would keep people away. He got off in Foggy Bottom, walked past the White House and down the mall, ending up on the steps of The Capitol. A security guard gave him the eye, suspicious. As he should be.
Nick was a dangerous man.
He was lighter—leaner—than he’d been before the injury. Not surprising, and probably a good thing.
It was pouring now, reminding him of an op that had dropped his team in the middle of a South American jungle.
God, what he wouldn’t give to be back there again.
Looking up, he felt like the heavens were taunting him.
He had to get out of town. He had a couple of options. He could head to an island and decompress in a tiki hut over a lagoon in Fiji. He had a friend with a chalet in the Alps. It was beautiful and secluded, but there would be no skiing or climbing.
The last idea was the one that really appealed to him. Barefoot Bay. He’d head to his grandparents’ house in Florida to regroup and figure out what to do next.
Sure, people knew him, but most of them wouldn’t ask questions, and the tiny coastal island of Mimosa Key was about as far away from work as he could possibly get. Sure, there might be nosy neighbors, but no one would be shooting at him.
And he’d try to see Lila. If she was still speaking to him.
Yeah, no doubt about it. Thoughts of Lila alone made Florida a very good idea.