Courting Chloe (Hudson Valley Heroes Book 1)

 

COURTING CHLOE

Book One

Hudson Valley Heroes

 

By

Victoria Lynne

 

 

 

Copyright © 2016 by Victoria Lynne

All rights reserved. This book is a work of fiction. Any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

Traffic slowed to a crawl as it weaved through lower Manhattan. Ian Dowling craned his head to the left, attempting to peer around the truck ahead of him to see what was causing the slowdown. His view was blocked by a sight-seeing bus that veered abruptly into the right lane, almost taking out his side view mirror in the process. A delivery van shot into gap ahead of him.

Ian punched his breaks. “Since when did the zipper method mean
floor it and cut off as many other drivers as you can
?”

His sister Barbara, curled up beside him in the passenger seat, gave a careless shrug. “Let ‘em go. Maybe they’re in a hurry.”

“Who gives a damn if they’re in a hurry? I’m talking about driving etiquette here. Basic civility.”

“If you want civility, what are you doing living in New York?”

She pantomimed playing a drum as she spoke, hitting an invisible pair of symbols as she delivered her quip. Complaining about the hassles and craziness of life in New York had become a running joke between them. But that was as far as it ever went. Neither one had any intention of leaving the city. Love it or hate it—most days they did both—this was home.

He glanced her way. Barb sat contentedly munching her way through a box of glazed donut holes. Steam curled from the cup of coffee resting in the cup holder between them. “I hope that’s not dinner,” he said.

She gave another shrug. “Sugar and caffeine. What more does a woman need?” A small, devilish smile suddenly curved her lips. Ian knew without asking which direction her thoughts had flown. In a pitch-perfect imitation of their elementary school lunch lady’s heavy Bronx accent, she said, “Would it kill you just to say
hello
to a piece of broccoli?”

He bit. “Hello, broccoli.”

Traffic, which had barely been moving, slowed to a dead stop. Car horns blared. Ian let out a sigh and shifted into neutral.

Barb shot him a sideways glance. “You don’t have to pick me up, you know. I can always take the subway.”

“After midnight. With Preston asleep in your arms.” He shot a glance in the rearview mirror. His six-year-old nephew was sound asleep in the narrow backseat, buckled up in his booster seat with his favorite blanket tucked around him.

“I just meant, if this is a hassle for you…”

He turned to her and frowned. “What is this? I’d just be at the bar, anyway. This gives me an excuse to get out for a little bit. Besides, all I’d do is worry about you guys getting home safe.”

“I thought I was supposed to worry about you, little brother. I am older and wiser, you know.”

“Older, maybe,” he conceded.

His twin sister had him beat by all of two minutes. And though she might pull rank as the older of the pair, he had her beat in pure body mass. At twenty-nine, Barbara wasn’t any larger than she had been her freshman year in high-school: five-foot-two and barely a hundred pounds. Ian clocked in at six-foot-three, two hundred and twenty pounds. If not for their coloring—both had been blessed with dark chestnut hair and vivid hazel eyes—no one would have believed they were siblings, let alone twins.

She punched him lightly in the bicep. “Definitely smarter, too. Let’s compare degrees, shall we?”

Another huge difference between them. Together they’d left home at seventeen, just out of high school. With eight hundred dollars between them and no job prospects, they’d headed to the city, where they’d shared a dump of an efficiency apartment. Their father had sworn nothing good would come of either of them.

Ian had been determined to prove him wrong. He had his size going for him, his brains, and—most importantly—his fists. Initially hired as a bouncer, he’d worked the club scene until he made it to manager, finally saving enough money to buy and refurbish a bar of his own. That endeavor had proved so successful he was able to buy a second bar and turn it around as well, and then a third. He was currently branching out, considering going in as an investor on a restaurant that was due to break ground next year.

Barb, on the other hand, had seemed determined to prove their father right. Cut loose in the city, she’d flirted with drugs and alcohol, drifted from one dead-end job to the next, engaged in a series of risky relationships. It wasn’t until she discovered she was pregnant that she turned her life around, went back to school and found her true calling: helping immigrant children and their families. She was particularly passionate about working with refugees coming into the United States from the Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Honduras, and other war-ravaged countries.

“Speaking of degrees,” Ian said, “how’s the latest one going?”

              “Amazing. I love it. But I think I’m going to tweak my Master’s a little bit. I’m going to edge away from pure social work.”

She put the donut holes aside and propped her feet up on the dashboard. Ian glanced at the tiny purple butterfly tattooed above her ankle and smirked. “Forget the butterfly. You ought to get a chameleon.”

Barbara smiled. “Change is beautiful. That’s life. We can’t hold onto anything, no matter how hard we try.” She glanced out her window at the construction site. “Look at this, for example. One old building going down and a brand new one going up. We’ve driven by at least a hundred times. Do you even remember what used to be here?”

Ian shrugged. “A little red schoolhouse, probably.”

She let out a light laugh. “Exactly. A little red schoolhouse with a bell on top, planted in the middle of lower Manhattan. Right next to the store that sells Amish footwear.” Her smile slowly faded as she worried her bottom lip. “I’m serious, though. About school, I mean.”

“Oh?”

“I want to get a law degree. That’s the only way I can really help families like the one I was with tonight. There’s a justice coalition that’s doing amazing work for refugees. It’s headed by this brilliant attorney from Harvard…”

Ian nodded as he listened. Traffic opened up slightly. He shot ahead one car length, but was quickly boxed in by an airport shuttle van. More horns blared. The light ahead was green but nobody was moving. A steady rain began to fall. Ian switched on his wipers.

“…anyway,” Barb finished, “Columbia Law actually offered me a slot, starting in the fall.”

“Really? That’s amazing. Congratulations.”

She heaved a sigh and dragged her hands through her hair. “I’m not sure if I’m going to take it.”

He swung his head around to look at her. “What do you mean you’re not going to take it?”

“I mean, sure, I love the idea, but the reality? It’s a huge commitment, both of time and money. I’d have to quit my job, find a cheaper place to live. Then there’s the whole public school issue. Preston will be starting first grade—”

“Don’t worry about it. You know I’ve been lucky with money. I can cover your rent and tuition.”

“You haven’t been
lucky
. You’ve worked your ass off and been smart as hell. You saved and scrimped and earned every penny you made. Besides, I thought you were considering investing in that new bar, maybe going in with a partner and snatching up the whole building.”

“I am. I will. I can do both.” Ian allowed himself the satisfaction of watching his sister’s brows arch skyward.

“Really?” She patted the leather dash. “So this flashy little Benz isn’t just for show, huh? You’re actually loaded.”

Ian laughed. “Loaded? Not exactly. But I’m not hurting financially, if that’s what you mean. I can carry you for as long as you need me to.”

He regretted his choice of words the instant they left his mouth. Anger flared in Barb’s vivid hazel eyes and her mouth took on an obstinate set. “I don’t want you to
carry me
,” she snapped. “That’s the whole problem. I’m tired of being a burden to you. If I choose to go to Columbia, I’ll do it on my own.”

“Okay, now you’re starting to piss me off. Since when have you or Preston ever been a
burden
to me?”

“Look, forget it.” Barb turned her head, fixing her gaze on the urban streetscape.

“That’s not what I meant and you know it.”

Stubborn silence greeted his words. Ian felt his own temper heat. He glanced in the rearview mirror to ensure his nephew was still sleeping, then bit out, “Christ, Barb, give me a break. After everything you and I have been through, do you really think I give a fuck about money?”

Tension filled the car, then Barb released a low sigh. She swiveled her head around to study Ian. He could almost feel her gaze on the crescent-shaped scar that marked his right temple, the result of his getting between their father and a bottle of scotch.

“You don’t have to save me anymore,” she said softly. “In fact, I don’t want you to. The truth is, I’m worried about you.”

Ian gave a gruff laugh. “What?” he choked out. “You’re worried about
me
?”

“When was the last time you were in a real relationship?” she challenged. “Wait a minute, let me rephrase that. Have you
ever
been in a real relationship?”

“What are you talking about? I’m seeing someone right now.”

“Oh, yeah. Right. Joyce.”

“Jocelyn.”

“Ah.
Jocelyn
. Of course.” Barb gave a smirk as she considered that. “Let me guess. Tall, willowy, blonde. Stunningly beautiful.”

“As a matter of fact, that’s right. So? Something wrong with my taste in women?”

“No,” Barb allowed. “But you do seem to be stuck on a theme. One gorgeous blonde after another, replaced the second she dares to utter the dreaded ‘L’ word.”

“’L’ word?”

“Love. As in,
I love you
.”

“Maybe I’m just not ready for commitment.”

“Right.” She gave a knowing smirk. “You don’t mind all these women just using you for your hot bod? Seeing you as nothing but a rich, sexy bar owner and a great tumble in bed?”

“Somehow I manage to struggle through.”

“Hmm-mmm.” She pulled the elastic band from her hair and dragged her fingers through the dark masses, shaking it out. “One day, little brother, some woman is going to grab hold of your heart and squeeze it tight. She’s not going to put up with any of your ‘I’m just not ready for commitment’ horseshit. I can’t wait to see that happen. How the mighty will fall.”

“Not likely.” That just wasn’t in his genetic make-up. Neither, he thought, was it in his sister’s. Their upbringing hadn’t exactly pushed them in the direction of happily-ever-after. He shot her a curious glance. “What gives? There someone in your life I should know about?”

“Not at the moment, but at least I’m open to the possibility.” She gave a thoughtful pause and continued softly, “I’ve been in love before, you know.”

No—he absolutely had not known that. How could he not have known that? He thought he knew Barb as well as he knew himself. They were
twins
, for God’s sake. Connected. His shock must have shown on his face, for Barb continued softly, “Preston’s father, of course.”

Ian reeled. His mind shot back more than half dozen years, back to the squalid walk-up apartment they’d shared. A lot of memories there—very few of them pleasant. He’d worked around the clock, while Barb had latched onto one loser after another, acting out a futile rebellion against parents who’d long since ceased caring about either of them. Given how tight-lipped she’d been about Preston’s father, he’d assumed (incorrectly, apparently) that his sister’s unplanned pregnancy had been the result of a one-night stand.

“But… I don’t get it. Why didn’t you guys get married when you found out you were pregnant?”

Barb shrugged. “He didn’t want to.”

“What do you mean,
he didn’t want to?”

“He thought I should get an abortion.”


What?
Son-of-a—”

              “Look,” she cut him off, “I was twenty-three, he was twenty-one. Young. Obviously neither of us planned the pregnancy, but I thought we could handle it together.” She gave a disparaging laugh. “I thought there was a ‘we’. Bad radar, I guess.”

“Christ. I never knew any of this.”

“Of course not. You would have wanted to kick his ass and drag him to the altar shotgun style.”

“Damned right.” Ian tightened his grip on the steering wheel. “I absolutely would have kicked his ass, dragged him to the altar.”

“Great. And then I would have been stuck with some guy who didn’t really love me, desperately trying to make it work.” She gave a shudder. “No thanks.”

“I had no idea.”

Barb craned her neck around and gazed adoringly at her sleeping son. “Things happen for a reason. Everything worked out. I mean, look—I got Preston, and he turned my entire life around. If I hadn’t connected with his father, Preston wouldn’t be here. Besides, that just means there’s somebody out there who’s better for me.” She shot Ian a jaunty smile. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll meet my true love at Columbia.”

He snorted. “Your true love.”

She brought up her chin and gave a disapproving cluck of her tongue. “That’s the difference between us, little brother. You see life as a tragedy.”

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