The hit show Coop saw coming.
Love? Completely blindsided him.
And the baby? Who could have guessed Cooper wanted to be a father? Too bad Libby--the woman he's fallen hard for--might never forgive him for turning her life into a joke for worldwide consumption. Not to mention the changes he's brought to the small Black Hills community of Sentinel Pass, where happily-ever-after isn't left to chance.
Pay up or die.
Cooper Lindstrom stared at the memo line of the email and fought the urge to put his fist through the screen of the desktop computer.
One, he couldn’t afford a broken hand. Two, he couldn’t afford a new computer. And three…he didn’t know what three was.
He deleted the message without reading it. There would be others. So far, he’d received half a dozen, each one escalating the level of violence that would befall him if he didn’t make good on his mother’s online gambling debt.
“I wonder what comes after death?” he muttered. “This moron isn’t a deep thinker. He should have hung on to loss of life until he’d exhausted the removal of all body parts.”
He sighed and shook his head. He hated the way his brain worked. When he was supposed to be concentrating on the weighty matters of his life – of which there were many at the moment – his “butterfly brain,” as his mother often referred to his mind – would flit off to another, more interesting flower.
Lena Lindstrom. Powerhouse backstage mom who had watched after her only child and his career with the sort of devotion most people found…unusual, if not faintly disturbing.
But not Cooper. He’d loved her – even when she hovered. He’d loved her enough to overlook her faults. Until she suddenly collapsed in a casino in Vegas then died the following morning, hanging on just long enough for him to reach her, touch her hand and say her name. Not long enough for anything else he wanted – needed – to get off his chest.
That had been eight weeks earlier. Eight life-altering, eye-opening, icon-shattering weeks. He could no longer say he loved his mother.
He looked at the four-inch stack of bills that had accumulated on his desk. The $10K piece of acrylic topped by a fake surfboard was designed to look as if it were bouncing on the waves just beyond his floor-to-ceiling Malibu window. Prior to Lena’s death, he’d only sat there twice – for photo shoots.
Sighing, he pushed away from the screen and rocked back, plopping his bare feet on a footstool that looked like an elephant foot. He hoped to god it hadn’t once belonged to a real elephant, but this is what happened when you gave a set designer full reign and an open checkbook to decorate your home.
At the time he bought this house, his prime-time, mid-season fill-in reality show called Are You Ready For Your Close-up? had just moved into the top slot in the ratings. Viewers couldn’t seem to get enough of watching semi-talented aspiring actors go head-to-head – or…”chest-to-boobs”, as one critic called it – competing for a studio contract and chance to appear in an established network show. As its host, he’d been raking in the dough. Life had been good.
But that had been two seasons ago. Even with the carefully hinted at scandal that made headlines at the beginning of the viewing year, the show now routinely scored in the bottom half of the numbers. The same celebrity gossip magazine that had teased readers with hints about Coop’s supposed affair with one of the contestants was now predicting this would be the last year for Close-up.
Which was fine with him. He was tired of arbitrating the nasty in-fighting between the celebrity judges, two of whom were actually having an affair. And he’d had it up to here dealing with the inflated egos of the young actors who were put through a grueling pace to learn lines and perform scenes that the judges critiqued and the viewing public voted on.
He closed his eyes to the pacifying view beyond the window. The waves, which usually grounded him, now felt as though they might swamp him. He could almost picture a giant tsunami that retreated for a couple of miles then nailed his three-million dollar beach bungalow, leaving every other celebrity’s house intact.
“God, what a drama king,” he muttered, shaking his head and forcing his eyes open. Wide open.
These bills wouldn’t pay themselves, as his mother would have said if she’d been there.
Mom. He hated how the word made his throat tighten and tears well-up in his eyes. He blinked a couple of times and pushed away the thought that she would never be paying his bills again.
“Grow up, Cooper,” a familiar voice snapped. So clear, he almost looked over his shoulder to see if she’d returned from the dead to scold him.
He knew what she would have thought of his despondency. Lena Lindstrom had no time for sentimental ennui. A word he’d picked up from his mother and had used frequently until one of the studio tutors pointed out – in front of the other students – that the word was pronounced “on-we” not “en-new-ee”.
He was just reaching for the top envelope – an angry yellow color, when the phone rang.
He looked at the display before picking it up. Good timing. He needed a diversion – even a predatory one. “Hello, Tiffany, I wondered if you’d ever get around to calling to express your condolences.”
“The old gas bag would roll over in her grave if she thought I’d fake any kind of grief over her death.”
Tiffany Fane, his first ex-wife, had spent more of their eighteen-month marriage fighting with his mother than she had interacting with him. “So, why the call?”
“Your check bounced.”
“Which check is that?”
“The one that is issued to me monthly in agreement with our divorce settlement. It’s called spousal support, and your mother set up the draw as an auto-deduction from your account so she didn’t have to see my name in writing.”
That sounded like something his mother would do. She’d called Tiffany – and, to a lesser degree, Morgana, his second mistake – predatory she-bitches. Both women felt the same about Lena.
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you. Mom handled the money, and I’ve been a little too busy handling her affairs to even look at mine. And, honestly, I’m not sure where to begin.”
She made a petulant sound that he’d once thought cute and childlike. “Don’t play the poor, pitiful son card with me, Coop. We had an agreement and I expect you to honor it.” She took a breath. “Or else.”
“I had a tabloid reporter snooping around the other day asking about you…and your mother’s reputed gambling problem.” She spoke slowly and succinctly, as if he needed time to digest the threat. “I knew you before Close-up, Cooper. I know where the bodies are buried, so to speak.”
“Tiffany, I hate to point out the obvious because it might take the edge off your smugness, but if I had money, it would be in the account and the check would have cleared.”
“Surely the old hag had insurance.”
Not so far as he could see. “I’m worth quite a bit dead, but Mom…not so much.”
“Or alive,” she muttered. “Well, don’t just sit there on your oft-photographed tush, Cooper. I’m not waiting forever. Do something. Try selling your Emmy on eBay. You’re still hot, even if Are You Ready For Your Close-up is slipping in the ratings.”
Oft-photographed? Who says things like that? He wondered if she was trying out for some kind of summer stock production of Shakespeare.
“Are you listening to me, Cooper? I said, sell your Emmy. Better than letting the world see what a twisted freak your mother was, right?”
Cooper looked across the room to the glass bookshelf where the statue he’d embraced as joyfully as a newborn not so long ago now sat collecting dust. His mother had been his date that evening. She’d wept on camera. Then had slipped out of the Governor’s Ball to play in an online poker tournament because she was certain her son’s “luck” had rubbed off on her. Not exactly a tribute to his skill or talent.
When Tiffany, or T-fancy, as he used to call her – a nickname that later changed to Infancy — hung up, he turned on his computer. It took a few minutes to figure out how to prompt a search engine, but eventually he made is way to that giant online auction house: eBay. Not to sell his pride and joy. No way. But if… He glanced at the pile of bills again. Just in case it came to that, he could see what such things were going for.
Since his statue looked like gold, he entered that word alone in the box where his cursor was blinking. “Go.”
His screen filled with possibilities. Gold coins. Gold doubloons. Gold mine.
A gold mine? Really?
He scanned a little further but found himself backtracking. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe because one of his first big screen roles had been the son of a Gold Rush-era miner whose wife died on the Overland Trail. The actor who played his father was a belligerent drunk, off-camera, but he’d been surprisingly convincing as a man torn between following his dream of getting rich and settling down to make a life for his child.
“Actually, I could use a gold mine,” he muttered, tapping the mouse. “To hide out in from my mother’s psycho bookie, if nothing else.”
He double-clicked on the item and read: Will trade: quarter share in working gold mine for viable sperm, resulting in pregnancy. Restrictions apply.
“Sperm, I got. It’s gold I need,” he said with a laugh. To his trained ear, the sound was edged in bitterness not in keeping with his happy-go-lucky, blonde-to-the-roots public persona.
He tapped another blue-highlighted link that promised details. A woman’s Facebook page came up. A woman named Libby McGannon.
He hunched forward and started to read, slowly, memorizing each word as his mother had taught him when he first began trying out for speaking parts at age six.
“Directors don’t have time for flubs, Cooper. You only get one chance to make a bad impression.” He’d been in his twenties before he learned what a malapropism was.
Libby McGannon was offering to trade half of her half-interest in the Little Poke Mine, a family enterprise in the Black Hills of South Dakota. “The Little Poke,” he murmured, letting out a low chuckle. The name alone was priceless irony.
He didn’t know much about the Internet, but he’d heard plenty of stories of people faking things to pull suckers into some kind of scam, but the more he read, the more he decided this woman was for real. She included the kind of facts most people couldn’t – or wouldn’t bother – making up. But more importantly, there was something straightforward and sincere in her manner. Something very human.
One of his acting teachers once told him that “desperate circumstance, irony and farce are the building blocks of comedy.” Cooper hadn’t understood that at the time, but he did, now.
This would make a good sitcom.
A millisecond later a tingle coursed through him. It was not unlike the electrical shock he’d received when a malfunctioning toaster on the lot had brought the paramedics running and given the late-night talk show host their opening gag.
“Bingo,” he cried.
He thought a moment then jumped to his feet and pumped his fist in the air, changing his call to, “Eureka.”
See, Mom? I listened in a couple of history classes.
His mother’s expensive ergonomic chair shot like a bullet across the bamboo floor and collided with a curio cabinet containing the many Lladro figurines he’d given her over the years. The delicate porcelains never went with the décor in his office, but since Mom had been the only person to use the room, he’d let her include as many personal items as she wished once the photo shoots were over. She’d loved the figures that he found slightly anemic-looking and too melty for his taste.
He stared at the cabinet a moment then smiled. “Thanks, Mom.”
He knew what he’d sell on eBay. The collection had cost him a fortune over the years. He could get even more for the pieces if he sold them under his real name, but that wasn’t possible. He didn’t want anyone to know how hard up he was for money. If they did, they’d ask why.
He’d do just about anything to avoid answering that question. Even if it meant using the money from the figurines’ sale to finance a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota to see a woman about a gold mine. Not the one she was offering to trade, but a gold mine of a different kind. The only thing that would pull him out of this financial crevasse of his mother’s making was a new hit television show.
He returned to his chair and sat. With elbows on the desktop, he steepled his fingers and rested his chin on his hands. He stared at the computer screen, studying Libby McGannon’s photo. What kind of woman would sell a share in her family business in exchange for sperm?
A desperate one, of course. And that was something he could relate to all too well.
With a long sigh, he cracked his knuckles and started typing.
“Elizabeth Jane McGannon, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Tell me you’re joking.”
Mac’s face had turned an unhealthy shade of red – the color he and Libby had referred to as “maroon gloom” when their father had been ranting about something. Their father was gone now. Killed in a cave-in in the Little Poke mine. Where her brother was following in their father’s footsteps.
“I’ve not only made up my mind,” Libby said calmly — aware of the three spectators to this unplanned sibling debate. “The deed is done. I posted the information on my Facebook page and I’m already up to twelve-hundred hits.”
His groan made her wince. “Nuts. Completely crazy.” He snatched his Denver Broncos ball cap off the chair and stalked to the door. He paused to look at the three women who had arrived at Libby’s house half an hour earlier expecting to drink wine and discuss their monthly bookclub selection, not be drawn into the middle of a family argument. “Maybe you can talk some sense into her. Who in their right mind would place an online ad offering to trade a share of a mine in return for sperm?”
He spat out the last word as though it were poison.
Her friends – Jenna, Kat and Charlene – exchanged looks that Libby had no trouble interpreting. Libby had suspected her idea, which had come to her in the middle of the night when she was rocking her niece to sleep after the child awoke from a nightmare, might cause a bit of a stir. That was one reason she’d held off telling her best friends until they were all together. She knew she was going to need them on her side when the news got out.
After all, she was postmaster of a small town in the Black Hills. Sentinel Pass had only gotten high-speed internet a few years earlier. Most home computers, including Libby’s, were now able to access the world. But that didn’t mean its citizens were ready to embrace the changes that came with that two-way street.
She locked the front door to deter a return visit then walked to the rocking chair where she’d been sitting, enjoying her dinner before Mac stormed in. He’d entered the house through the kitchen and circled through the dining room where she’d placed a chafing dish and salad bowl, along with a copy of their book club selection and three little flags. Her guests had oohed and ahhed over the table as they filled their plates then carried them to TV trays in the living room. Libby had planned to break her news to her friends in a cozier, less formal setting.
“I was going to tell you about this. After we finished talking about the book.” Tonight, the four mainstays of the Wine, Women and Words bookclub were discussing Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and drinking Chianti to compliment the spinach-and-cheese-stuffed ravioli that Libby had prepared. Dessert would be gelato.
She took a long pull from her wine glass then said, “For the past two weeks I’ve been involved with an online chat group made up of people like me. Women who are pushing forty to the ever-steady beat of the biological clock. They helped me figure out how I wanted to do this.”
“Wait a minute,” Jenna Murphy, closet poet and substitute postmaster, demanded. She wiped a trace of pasta sauce from her Angelina Jolie-shaped lips. “You took your problem to strangers?”
“How could you?” Kat Petroski cried, sitting forward from her spot in the middle of the sofa. “We’re your best friends.”
The tremor in the petite blonde’s voice was more hurt than outrage.
“Of course, you are. But none of you have walked in my shoes, so to speak. Kat, you’re so fertile you could conceive after an evening of talking dirty. Tag and Jordie prove it.” Her sons by two different husbands were eight and six.
“Jenna doesn’t want kids,” she went on, moving her finger to the woman on Kat’s left. “And Char…” She looked at the woman with short spiky hair that she dyed anything from orange to purple, depending on her mood. At the moment, she resembled a rock star – black with pink highlights. “Char has always been surprisingly mum on the subject.”
All started talking at once. Libby moved the TV tray to one side and picked up the venerable, five-foot-long yew branch that was a part of every meeting. “Stop. Everyone. I have the talking stick. That means I speak and you listen. Without jumping to conclusions or rushing to judgment. Remember?”
When they’d started the group two years earlier, Char had suggested they borrow the idea from a Lakota friend who ran a free clinic on the Pine Ridge reservation. The talking stick was empowering to the speaker and symbolically reminded listeners they could get whacked over the head if they didn’t shut up and pay attention.
“Kat, you know I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. Even before Misty died.” Mac’s wife had been killed in a car accident the previous fall.
“What does your slutty sister-in-law have to do with your decision to get pregnant?”
Libby shook the stick at Jenna, who even on the best of nights was rushed for time and tended to cut off every long-winded discussion topic to keep things moving. This attitude partly stemmed from the fact she was a downtrodden caregiver whose only night off from caring for her difficult, hypochondriac mother was spent counseling her friends, whose lives seemed to be shrinking to one solitary point of focus – men.
Or rather, the lack of them.
“Misty – for all her faults – was only twenty-eight when she died. Twenty-eight. In a few months, I’ll be thirty-five. That’s two decades of menses wasted every month instead of nurturing a new life. I’ve read that some women are starting to enter peri-menopause in their early forties because of stress and the environment. I need to do this. Now. And I’m willing to pay for it.”
She shook the stick. “But the only thing of value I own – outside of this house — is half-interest in a gold mine. We all know it’s never going to be the next Homestake, but what man wouldn’t want to brag that he owns a share in a gold mine?”
“What about your Mom’s settlement money?” Jenna asked, ignoring the stick.
“You all know how I feel about that. Dad called it ‘blood money’ and refused to touch it. After he died, Gran set up trusts for Mac and me, but we both decided the money should go to our children. Of course, that was before Misty got hold of it.” What happened to a good-sized chunk of the money was still a sore subject that Mac refused to talk about. “Megan will inherit what’s left of Mac’s share, but I…I don’t even have a cat to leave it to at this point.”
She lowered the stick, indicating that the others were free to ask questions.
“Why online? There are all kinds of kooks and weirdoes out there.”
“Why didn’t you ask Clive? He’s been in love with you since grade school.”
Libby finished her wine in one gulp then turned to Jenna, her closest and oldest friend, who knew better than to suggest such a thing. Clive Brumley was a nice guy. One of Libby’s most reliable rural carriers. But he’d never be anything more to her than a friend. “He kissed me when we were in the third grade. I remember because it was so traumatizing. I ran home to Gran and told her his lips were soft and slimy and his breath smelled like fish sticks. To this day, a part of me thinks of him as Fish Lips.’”
Char’s slightly upturned nose wrinkled. “Eiouw.”
A moment later, Kat said, “Libby, I think you’re one of the smartest women I’ve ever met. You’re capable and strong and a born leader, but being a single parent is the toughest thing I’ve ever done and I started out with a partner. Both times.”
Libby smiled at the compliments. Wouldn’t her friends laugh if they knew just how terrified she felt? She’d agonized over this decision for weeks and still, at times, was certain she was a self-serving fool. But, ultimately, her rationale would come back to Kat. “Kat, you’re partly the reason I decided to do this.”
“Me? I work two jobs and have two kids from two ex-husbands who make me jump through hoops to get my sons’ monthly child support. What part of this madness I call a life do you find attractive?”
“You’re a single mom getting her teaching certificate while juggling part-time work and childcare. Jordie and Tag are great kids who adore you and don’t seem to resent the fact you’re not married to their fathers. That was my biggest concern. Would my child hate me for not giving him or her a standard, two-parent upbringing?”
Char leaned in. “Of course, he or she will hate you – at some point. No matter what you do.”
Char could always be counted on to salt the pot of controversy with a dash of negativity.
“On the off chance that’s true, I’ve decided I need to meet the father face-to-face. No anonymous donor list for me. I don’t have time to court some guy and fall in love – and we all know the pitfalls that come with love, but if I handle this as a business transaction there won’t be all the angsty emotions that could turn us into enemies.” The way Mac and Misty were at the end. “We’ll stay in touch. By email. From a safe distance.”
Nobody said anything, so she added, “And he’ll be available in case anything happens to me. My child will never be an orphan.” Her voice faltered on the last word, as it always did. She looked at her lap, hoping her friends wouldn’t notice. She didn’t want their sympathy, only their support.
The line across Jenna’s brow softened. “So, you’re not planning on having sex with this guy?”
A telling question, Libby noted. Not surprising coming from someone with Jenna’s history.
“No. Absolutely not.” Even though I feel like a dried up shell and am afraid my soul is too barren at this point to host a fertilized egg. “After I’ve narrowed down my search, I’m going to require the applicant I choose to come here for a week. I haven’t worked out all the details, but I figure he can stay in Gran’s cabin out back. If we both agree that we can work together on this project, he’ll deposit his sperm at the clinic in Rapid City and leave. My doctor gave me a bunch of information about hormone shots and whatnot. Once she says it’s time, I’ll go in and we’ll let nature take over.”
There was a bit more muttering and shaking of heads, but Libby carefully laid out her baby-by-contract strategy. These were her friends. They knew and loved her. If she couldn’t convince them this was a good idea, then her plan was doomed where the rest of the town was concerned.
And did the town’s opinion matter to her? Of course it did. She’d known most of the residents of Sentinel Pass all her life. But was she willing to give up becoming a mother just because her postal customers didn’t approve?
She’d wrestled with the question on more than one sleepless night, and the answer, she’d finally decided, was no. This was her life, and there came a point when even a people-pleasing good girl had to put herself first.
I can do this. I will do this. Provided she could find the right sperm donor. Someone who was more interested in claiming an interest in a gold mine than actually getting rich from it. If such a man didn’t exist, she would fall back to Plan B and pay him a portion of her trust fund for his contribution to her private sperm bank. But ideally he’d want that money to go to their child. In a perfect world.
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A six-time nominee for RT's Best Superromance of the Year award, Debra took home that honor with a most unlikely hero and never-say-die heroine. Now, out-of-print, that book will join her BLACK HILLS RENDEZVOUS series in May, 2016.
BLACK HILLS BABY - Hollywood meets the "real" wild west.
BLACK HILLS BILLIONAIRE - What if his $$ isn't enough to save her?
BLACK HILLS BAD BOY - He's hell on wheels...in his dreams.
BLACK HILLS BACHELOR - Single by choice, no Hollywood princesses need apply.
BLACK HILLS OUTCAST - Hiding out from life works just fine...until he meets Rachel.
BLACK HILLS WHITE KNIGHT - His suit is Armani--not armor.
Channel your inner maverick with Debra's Big Sky Mavericks series from Tule Publishing:
MONTANA COWGIRL - Cowgirl, you can go home--and love--again.
MONTANA COWBOY - He's nobody's cowboy until his new neighbor rocks his world.
MONTANA DARLING - Her land. His tent. And this is Montana, where property disputes can lead to a range war...or love.
MONTANA MAVERICK - A lone wolf PhD rescues a rancher--and gains a life.
MONTANA GIFT (a FREE holiday novella) - The system failed him, but she never would.
MONTANA HERO - He may be her hero, but who's going to save him?
MONTANA ROGUE - He's more than meets the eye--eye candy, that it.
MONTANA REBEL - Defying death is all part of the game...until you have something to lose.
MONTANA MIRACLE - It takes a Montana village to create a Christmas miracle.
Readers and reviewers of Debra's romance novels say:
"Debra Salonen captures readers' attention with multifaceted characters, layered conflict and fast pacing." ~ Pamela Cohen, RomanticTimes Bookclub
"No one writes drama like Debra Salonen." ~ Huntress Reviews
"Great chemistry, great one liners and a sexy cowboy!" ~ C. Arcidiacono
"This novel had everything, family drama, love, a little bit of sexy and a lot of heart." ~ gertyp
"...one of the most heartfelt novels I've ever read." ~ Kaitie Campbell
"Debra Salonen pens a bittersweet love story with a fresh storyline and a love that stays with you long after the book is over." ~ Tami Sutton, The Best Reviews
For something naughty and wildly irreverent, try JUDY UNCENSORED with a 50-something, self-proclaimed "trailer trash" heroine who is: "Old enough to know better--too young-at-heart to care." And, as if finding your HEA isn't hard enough, then comes the holidays. JUDY DOES CHRISTMAS is "Laugh-out-loud funny, poignant and just plain fabulous!"