Wincing against the glare of the sun that slanted through his front windshield, the man drove slowly through Bel Air, California. There was so much money in this area. He couldn’t even afford to pay the rent on his dumpy one-bedroom apartment and yet these people owned estates that sprawled over half an acre. Didn’t seem fair.
The baby he’d put in the seat next to him—only a few hours old and wrapped in a tattered blanket—began to squirm. It wasn’t in a carrier; he didn’t own one. He wasn’t about to spend good money on something he wouldn’t need.
“Don’t you cry,” he muttered under his breath. “Don’t you dare cry.” He couldn’t tolerate that sound—it was like nails scraping down a chalkboard. He had to get rid of the child before it started to make noise. Noise would draw too much attention.
He’d intended to take it to the far corner house. He’d been to that mansion twice before and thought the woman who lived there might be empathetic enough to take in an abandoned baby. But the needy infant was already waking up, so he pulled over immediately, looked both ways on the quiet summer street and grabbed the squirming bundle.
It took only a few seconds to stash the newborn under the closest privacy hedge. He didn’t dare go any closer to the house surrounded by that hedge, couldn’t waste the time or he’d risk being seen. The neighborhood was quiet in mid-afternoon, but there were always service people coming and going…
He heard the baby start to fuss, which only made him move faster. After jumping back into his vehicle, he took off.
Thirty-two years later
“You look miserable.”
Ellie Fisher forced a smile for her oldest friend. “What? No, I’m not miserable at all!” She had to shout over the music pulsing through the air and reverberating off the walls and ceiling. She’d never understood why, in a place designed for singles to meet and become acquainted, the music had to be so loud. A hundred twenty decibels made it almost impossible to have a conversation and had to be damaging their hearing, but she didn’t say that. She knew how Amy, her friend since early childhood, and Amy’s friend Leslie, whom she’d just met tonight, would react. Besides, after the emotional trauma she’d been through in the past week, she wouldn’t have felt much better anywhere else. “I’m having a great time!”
Amy pursed her lips. “Sure you are.”
After being inseparable in grade school, she and Amy had grown apart in middle school and taken very different paths. Amy had been the stereotypical cheerleader—popular, outgoing and fun—and had opted for cosmetology school instead of college. She now worked at an expensive hair boutique in Brickell, a neighborhood in downtown Miami. Ellie had never received the same amount of attention, especially from boys, but until recently she hadn’t cared about that. She’d always preferred her studies to parties, had been her high school valedictorian and was accepted into Yale, where she’d done her undergraduate as well as postgraduate work. Since leaving school, she’d been determined to overcome the immunology challenges associated with finding a cure for diabetes—her favorite aunt had lost a leg to the dreaded disease—and now she worked at one of the foremost research facilities in the world, which just happened to be here in Miami, where she’d been born. But thanks to that early bond, she and Amy would always be friends. Ellie had never been more grateful for her than during the past week, since Amy was the one who’d been there when Ellie’s world fell apart.
“It’s true.” Ellie glanced from Amy to Leslie as if to say “Here we are, sitting at a tiny table in one of South Beach’s most popular nightclubs. What’s not to love?”
Amy rolled her eyes. “I know you too well to believe that. But I’m not letting you cut out early, so don’t start checking the time on your phone. I’ve invited a couple of friends to come and meet you, remember?”
Ellie remembered, but Amy hadn’t mentioned any names. Ellie got the impression it was because she didn’t know which friend would show up—that she’d simply gone through her male clients and other contacts and invited anyone who might be available. “I wasn’t checking the time,” Ellie said.
Amy scowled. “I saw you!”
“I was looking to see if my parents texted me! They should’ve arrived in Paris by now.” Ellie wished she’d gone with them, but by the time her life had imploded, they’d had their travel plans in place, and it’d been too late to get a plane ticket. They’d be teaching in France for the next year, though. Once she finished the clinical trials she was working on, she hoped to fly over and meet up with them. Now that she wouldn’t be going on her honeymoon, she had enough vacation days to stay for three weeks. Surely visiting Paris would provide a better distraction. Hanging out with Amy didn’t seem to be helping.
“Your parents will be fine,” Amy said. “You need to loosen up, have a few drinks and start dancing. Forget about everything, including that bastard Don and the man he cheated on you with.”
Ellie didn’t think she could get drunk enough to forget about Don. Three days ago, she’d caught him in bed with Leonardo Stubner, a member of the administration staff where they worked. She’d have to face them both—as she had on Wednesday, Thursday and today—when she returned to the Banting Diabetes Center on Monday. And that wasn’t the worst of it. Since her shocking discovery, he and Leo had come out of the closet and declared their love for each other, adding another level of humiliation to her suffering by making it all public. Half of their coworkers felt so sorry about the pressure they’d been under to hide their sexuality that they were praising them for having the courage to finally make “the big reveal.” The other half, those who were critical of their deception, didn’t dare speak out for fear of being accused of being unsympathetic, homophobic or both. One way or the other, almost everyone she knew was talking about Ellie and her situation and forming an opinion.
After hearing what Amy had just said, Leslie leaned forward, finally showing a spark of interest in Ellie. “Your fiancé cheated on you with another man?”
Ellie squirmed under Leslie’s horrified regard. When Amy had said they were taking Ellie out to get her mind off a broken engagement, Leslie had barely reacted. But the circumstances of her failed relationship made Ellie that much more pathetic. When Ellie caught her fiancé with his “best friend,” whom he’d known since college—Don was the one who got Leo hired at the BDC—she’d also come face-to-face with the realization that all the “golfing” trips the two had taken since she and Don started dating hadn’t been as innocent as she’d been led to believe.
The one man who’d told her he wanted to spend forever with her hadn’t really been attracted to her in the first place. He’d been using her as a cover so he wouldn’t become estranged from his ultrareligious parents.
That hurt more than her lost dream of having a family.
But the fact that she was ill at ease in a nightclub wasn’t Don’s fault. She’d never felt comfortable in large groups, didn’t consider herself particularly adept at the kind of social interaction they required. She’d been too devoted to getting her PhD in biomedical engineering—and following that with a postdoctoral fellowship at the BDC, where she’d met Don, a fellow scientist—to have much time for clubbing, so she’d had little experience.
She shouldn’t have let Amy drag her here, she decided as she gazed around. But maybe one of Amy’s friends would show up and make her feel like less of a loser. Nothing else had worked since Don’s betrayal, so she forced herself to hold out hope. If she didn’t make some effort to recover and move on, even if it resulted in only a very short rebound relationship, she’d die an old maid, as her grandmother would’ve put it. That had never seemed more of a possibility than now. Her thirtieth birthday loomed ahead, but instead of planning her wedding, as she’d anticipated, she’d be doing all she could to continue her research while bumping into her ex-fiancé and his lover on a daily basis.
A man from across the room came toward them. With his sandy-colored hair swept up off his forehead, he was attractive in a frat-boy way—well built and preppy, which was a look she found attractive.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked.
Frat Boy immediately singled out Amy—not that Ellie could blame him. Dressed in a short, tight-fitting black dress, six-inch stilettos and smoky makeup with bright red lipstick, Amy oozed sex appeal. So did Leslie, for that matter. Due mainly to Amy’s insistence, even Ellie had had a complete makeover and was dressed in a similar fashion, except her dress was white and dipped low in the back instead of the front—the only concession Amy would allow Ellie’s natural modesty.
“You need to get laid. That’s what you need,” her friend had said when she’d balked at wearing the skimpy lingerie she had on under her dress or complained about the height of the heels Amy had pressed on her. If someone did ask her to dance, she’d probably turn an ankle, which was hardly conducive to hooking up later. Then her first Brazilian would definitely not be worth the shocking pain.
Amy looked Frat Boy up and down before widening her smile. “Sure. It’ll save me the trouble of searching for you when I’m ready to leave.”
He obviously liked that response. Ellie had to admit it was evocative. She almost brought up the notes app on her phone so she could jot it down—except she was fairly certain that line wouldn’t come off so smoothly if she ever attempted to use it. Flirting sounded silly coming from her. She loved sarcasm, had always traded put-downs with her father, but she doubted that talent would impress other men.
With some effort because of the throng of people who filled the club, the man located a chair and dragged it over before introducing himself as Manny. He made small talk for a few minutes. Then he waved over his friend, a shorter, stockier version of himself, who’d been getting drinks at the bar.
Manny explained that they were both commercial real estate agents with a local firm and introduced his friend as Nick. Nick focused on Leslie, since Manny already had dibs on Amy, making Ellie the third wheel she’d expect to be in a situation like that. She tried to contribute to the conversation but found herself peeking at her phone when Amy wasn’t looking. Not only was she uncomfortable, she was bored. But if she tried to get a taxi, Amy would remind her of the “friends” who were coming to meet her.
As the two couples got up to dance, leaving Ellie alone at the table, she let out a long sigh and flagged down a waitress. “Bring me three shots of vodka,” she said.
Maybe if she forced herself to get buzzed, the rest of the night would pass in a merciful blur. The alcohol wasn’t good for her liver. As a scientist, she couldn’t help acknowledging that. But as far as she was concerned, it was vital for her poor aching heart.
* * *
Hudson King loved women, probably even more than most men did, but he didn’t trust them. He’d gotten his name from the intersection of Hudson and King, two streets in Los Angeles’s exclusive Bel Air community, where he’d been abandoned and hidden under a privacy hedge as a newborn, so he figured he’d come by that lack of trust honestly. If he couldn’t rely on his own mother to nurture and protect him when he was completely helpless, well…that didn’t start him off on the most secure path. Even once he’d been found, hungry, cold and near death, screaming at the top of his lungs, his life hadn’t improved for quite some time.
Of course, he’d been such an angry and unruly kid, he was undoubtedly to blame for some of the hurdles he’d faced growing up. He’d made things more difficult than they had to be. He’d had more than one foster family make that clear—before sending him back to the orphanage.
Fortunately, with his foster days long behind him, he’d buried most of the anger that had caused him to act out. Or maybe he just controlled it better these days. Some people claimed he played football with a chip on his shoulder—that his upbringing contributed to the toughness and determination he displayed on the field—and that could be true. Sometimes it felt as if he did have a demon driving him when he was out there, making him push himself as far as possible. Perhaps he was trying to prove that he did matter, that he was important, that he had something to contribute. Several sports commentators had made the suggestion, but whether those commentators had any idea what they were talking about, Hudson couldn’t say. He refused to go to a psychologist, didn’t see the point. No one could change the past.
Either way, once he was sent to high school at New Horizons Boys Ranch in Silver Springs, California, where it became apparent that he could throw a football, his fortunes had changed. After that, he was named First Team All American in college. Now, as starting quarterback for the Los Angeles Devils, he’d been named MVP once, played in the pro bowl three years running and had a Super Bowl ring on his finger. In other words, he had everything a man could want—a successful career, more money than he could spend and more attention than he knew what to do with.
Not that he enjoyed the attention. For the most part, he considered fame a drawback. Being in the spotlight proved to some of the families who’d decided he was too hard to handle that he might’ve been worth the effort. But it made his little problem with women that much worse. How could he trust them when they had all that incentive to target and mislead him? Getting involved with the wrong girl could result in false accusations of rape or physical abuse, lies about his personal life or other unwelcome publicity, even an intentional effort to get pregnant in the hopes of scoring a big payday. He’d seen that sort of thing happen too many times with other professional athletes, which was why he typically avoided the party scene. He wasn’t stupid enough to fall into that trap.
So, as he sat back and accepted his second drink at Envy in South Beach, he had to ask himself why he’d let his new sports agent, Teague Upton, talk him into coming to a club. He supposed it was the fact that Teague’s younger brother, Devon, was with them, making it two votes in favor to his one opposed. Still, he could’ve nixed the outing. These days, he usually got his way when he demanded it. But since his former agent had retired, Hudson had recently signed with Teague, and Teague lived in Miami and was proud of the city and eager to show him around. Besides, the game Hudson had flown in for didn’t take place until Sunday, so boredom was a factor. Since Bruiser, his closest friend on the team, wasn’t arriving until tomorrow due to a family commitment, and the rest of the Devils were going to a strip club tonight, loneliness played a role, too—not that Hudson would ever admit it. He was the guy perceived as “having it all.” Why destroy such a pleasant illusion? Being that guy was certainly an improvement over the unwanted burden he’d been as a child.
Besides, the owner of Envy had been very accommodating. Because Hudson didn’t want to be signing autographs all night, the club owner had made arrangements with Teague to let them in through the back and had provided them with a private booth in the far corner, where it was so dark it’d be tough to recognize anyone. From his vantage point, Hudson couldn’t see the entire dance floor—and only a small part of the lighted bar—but he could observe most of what was happening, at least in the immediate vicinity. That trumped hanging out alone in his hotel room, even if the skimpy dresses and curvy bodies of the women created a certain amount of sexual frustration he had little hope of satisfying. The strip club would’ve been far worse…
“Hudson, did you hear me?”
Hudson lowered the hurricane he’d ordered so he could respond to Teague’s younger brother. Teague himself had already found a woman to his liking and was hanging out with her closer to the bar. “What’d you say?”
“What do you think of that little hottie?” Devon jerked his head toward a buxom blonde gyrating against some skinny, well-dressed dude.
“Not bad,” Hudson said. But he wasn’t all that impressed by the blonde. He was far more intrigued by the woman he’d been surreptitiously watching since he arrived. Slender, with black hair swept up and away from an oval face, she wasn’t as pretty as some of the other women he’d seen tonight, but she wasn’t nearly as plastic, either. She seemed oddly wholesome, given the setting. The poise with which she held herself told him she deserved more attention than she was receiving. At times, she even seemed slightly bewildered, as if she didn’t understand all the frenetic activity around her, let alone thrive on it. She’d just ordered three shots and downed them all—without anyone cheering her on or clapping to encourage her, which wasn’t how most party girls did it. Then, while her friends were still off dancing, she’d gotten rid of the evidence and ordered something that looked like a peach margarita.
“Man, I’d like to get me some of that,” Devon was saying about the blonde.
“Go talk to her.” Hudson hoped to be left alone, so he could study the mystery woman at the table nearby without interruption or distraction.
“Can I tell her I’m with you?” Since Devon laughed as he spoke, Hudson knew he was joking, but he made his position clear, anyway.
“No. Don’t tell anyone I’m here. That would mean I’d have to leave, and I’m enjoying myself at the moment.”
“You are? You didn’t even want to come.”
“I’m glad I did.”
“You’re not doing anything except having a drink…”
At least he was having a drink around other people, could have some fun vicariously. “That’s good enough,” he said. “For now.”
“Man, you could change that so easily. All you’d have to do is crook your finger, and you could have any woman in here.”
Probably not any woman, but more than his fair share. That was part of the problem. Hudson never knew if the women he met were interested in him or his celebrity. “Fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
Devon’s expression said he was far from convinced. “Are you kidding me, man? I’d give anything to be you. I’d have a different model in my bed every night.”
Hudson didn’t live that way. He hadn’t slept with anyone since his girlfriend broke up with him nearly two years ago. He hadn’t planned on remaining celibate for such an extended period; he just hadn’t found anyone to replace Melody. Not only did he prefer to avoid certain risks, like getting scammed, he didn’t believe it was ethical to set someone up for disappointment. People like him, who struggled to fall in love, should come with a warning label. That was the reason he and Melody had gone their separate ways after seven years. She’d come to the conclusion that he’d never be willing to hand over his heart—could never trust enough to let go of it—and she wasn’t interested in anything less. She wanted to marry, settle down and have a family.
He respected her for cutting him off and had realized since then that she was right. He’d stuck with her as long as he had because she was comfortable and safe, not because he felt any great passion.
Still, it was difficult not to call her, especially when he needed the comfort, softness and sexual release a woman could provide. Only his desire to protect her from getting hurt again, since the breakup had been so hard on her, kept him from relapsing.
“I refuse to be that big a fool,” he told Devon.
Teague’s little brother leaned closer. “What’d you say?”
“Nothing.” Devon wouldn’t understand Hudson’s reluctance to churn through women even if he tried to explain it. Part of it was Devon’s age. At twenty-four, nothing sounded better than sex with as many girls as possible. Hudson had felt the same way eight years ago. Only his peculiar background, and that trust issue, had kept him from acting on his baser impulses. Also, he’d achieved early success through college football at UCLA and already had something to protect when he was twenty-four.
“So why don’t you approach her?” Hudson pressed, gesturing toward the blonde.
Devon took another sip of his drink. “Think I should?”
The song had ended and she was walking off toward a table on her own. “What do you have to lose? She might shut you down, but then you’ll move on to someone else, right?”
Freshly empowered, Devon put down his glass and slid out of the booth. “Good point. Okay. Here I go.”
As soon as he left, Hudson donned the sunglasses he kept in his shirt pocket—he was already wearing a ball cap—and called over the waitress.
Fortunately, she was so busy she barely looked at him, so the disguise seemed unnecessary, but he wasn’t taking any chances.
“What can I get for you?”
“That woman over there—what’s she drinking?” He pointed at the lone figure he found so intriguing. He didn’t have to worry about her seeing the gesture, since she had yet to look over at him.
The waitress cast a glance in the direction he’d indicated. “I’d guess a peach margarita.”
Just as he’d thought. “She needs a fresh one. Will you take care of it?”
“Thanks.” He handed her a twenty. “Keep the change.”