Spring Serendipity (Romancing Wisconsin Series - 8) by Stacey Joy Netzel by Stacey Joy Netzel - Read Online
Spring Serendipity (Romancing Wisconsin Series - 8)
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Summary

Sometimes love happens when you least expect it...

Lora Howell is stunned to find out her husband cheated on her before his death, but drinking too much and picking up a one night stand to get back at him might not have been the smartest thing to do. Facing the stupidity of her actions, the thirty-two year old mother of two recognizes the emptiness in her heart can’t be filled by sex—especially not with the town playboy whose reputation for loving-and-leaving is legendary.

Charismatic SWAT Officer Shane Parker was perfectly happy with his carefree bachelor ways until that one night with the beautiful widow. Now he can’t get the woman out of his head, and the more time he spends with Lora and her young boys, the higher the risk to his heart. Convincing her he’s ready to settle down becomes the most important negotiation of his life—until one last unexpected bombshell threatens everything.

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Spring Serendipity (Romancing Wisconsin Series - 8) - Stacey Joy Netzel

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Spring Serendipity

Romancing Wisconsin

Book 8

by

Stacey Joy Netzel

Can she dare trust her heart again?

Lora Howell is stunned to find out her husband cheated on her before his death, but drinking too much and picking up a one night stand to get back at him might not have been the smartest thing to do. Facing the stupidity of her actions, the thirty-two year old mother of two recognizes the emptiness in her heart can’t be filled by sex—especially not with the town playboy whose reputation for loving-and-leaving is legendary.

Charismatic SWAT Officer Shane Parker was perfectly happy with his carefree bachelor ways until that one night with the beautiful widow. Now he can’t get the woman out of his head, and the more time he spends with Lora and her young boys, the higher the risk to his heart. Convincing her he’s ready to settle down becomes the most important negotiation of his life—until one last unexpected bombshell threatens everything.

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Dedication

To Butch and Judy

At the very least, you are my inspiration for Santa Butch and Judy in the series.

At the very best, you are my inspiration to be a good person, to work hard for everything I have, and to trust love through the tough times while cherishing it in the good times.

Love you, Mom and Dad!

Chapter 1

Shane Parker sat in the cab of his truck watching the activity outside the bar as he debated his options.

A: go inside and have a beer with the guys, then walk over to the adjoining hotel and use the room key his buddy Tom had left with him when his wife went into early labor back in Madison.

B: drive the half-hour home to Pulaski to crash for the next twenty-four hours in his own bed.

Both had their pros and cons. Some of the guys inside he hadn’t seen since last year’s conference, and he always enjoyed catching up, swapping stories. However, he was dead tired after working a SWAT call through the night with a neighboring department. They’d made the arrest with barely enough time for him to shower, change, and rush to Green Bay to present his first of two programs for the state-wide training event.

Copious amounts of caffeine had kept him going through the day once the situation adrenaline rush wore off, but after more than thirty-six hours on his feet, sleep wasn’t going to give him a choice before too much longer. Alcohol wouldn’t help.

Outside the bar entrance, a group of girls who looked to be in their early twenties turned as a couple younger officers exited the bar. Suggestive catcalls from the women carried through his lowered window, and two of the guys backtracked with grins on their faces.

Shane’s gaze swept over the young women. They were pretty, and dressed in clothes much too revealing for a Tuesday evening out on the town, no matter how mild the spring weather was for mid-May in Wisconsin.

Badge Bunnies.

There were at least a few at every conference, and back in the day, he’d have turned around, too.

He twisted his lips in a wry grin. Back in the day was only seven or eight years ago. Hell, if he was being honest, he still would’ve looked twice last year. After his first year out of the academy, he’d learned his lesson not to engage, but he still would’ve looked.

Shit. Exhaustion was making him feel ancient at barely thirty-years old.

Screw it. He’d catch up at the next event. He leaned forward, reaching for the ignition to start his truck.

What ya sittin’ out here for, son?

Shane jumped at the loud voice and swung his head around as Butch Walsh stepped into view next to his open window.

His wife, Judy, stood beside him, a frown knitting her silver eyebrows together. I told you not to sneak up on him, Butch.

Santa—it was the best way to describe the old man with his white beard, wire-rimmed spectacles, and rosy cheeks—grinned without remorse. These young whippersnappers need a little shaking up now and again.

Shane relaxed back in his seat. This so-called whippersnapper carries a gun, sir.

Butch’s smile never wavered. And I trust you got the good judgment to know when you actually need to use it.

He chuckled as he shook his head. He definitely wouldn’t shoot Santa—by mistake or on purpose. Hi, Judy. What are you two doing in town tonight?

Derek had an athletic banquet for his students at the Resch Center, and Mark and Janelle awarded two scholarships from Whispering Pines to graduating seniors. It’s such a nice night, we decided to take a walk before heading home.

Shane shifted his gaze back and forth between the two, doing his best to keep his expression neutral. Derek and Janelle were cousins, and grandkids to the older couple, so their attendance made sense. Taking a walk in a bar parking lot did not, but hey, to each his own.

Ya goin’ in? Butch asked with a nod toward the building.

He glanced at the neon sign with a shrug. I was thinking not. It’s been a long day.

Everything all right? Judy asked with concern befitting Mrs. Claus.

Yeah, I’m just tired.

Ah, buck up, boy. Yer too young to be bailing at nine o’clock at night. Go in and have yerself a drink.

Shane cocked an eyebrow at the old man. You trying to get me on the Naughty List, Butch?

Not goin’ in would be the mistake.

He transferred his confused gaze to Judy, but the older woman simply offered a smile as she linked her arm with her husband’s. We should get going home.

Butch patted her hand on his flannel clad forearm. Yes, Mother. Have a good night, son.

Santa saluted him with a wink before leading his wife across the lot to their car parked on the street. Shane watched them drive away, wondering what the hell that had been about. He braced his elbow on the door and leaned his chin into his palm while surveying the bar.

If Santa thought he should go in, maybe he better not chance the consequences.

He heaved a sigh and rolled up his window with a muttered, Damn it, Butch.

Thankful he at least had the hotel room for later—not too much later, he vowed—Shane entered the bar. He scanned and found Sergeant Mike Lent from Wausau, then nodded to a couple guys on the way past, before joining his buddy at a table with two younger officers.

Mike passed him the last longneck from the bucket in the center of the table. Thought you were going home.

So did I. When his friend looked askance, Shane shook his head. Don’t ask.

Cuz no way in hell I’m telling you I’m here because Santa told me to.

Okay.

He took a pull from the cold beer, and as he lowered the bottle, a feminine laugh caught his attention. He swiveled his head toward the bar in time to see a brunette toss her long hair back over her shoulder before she half-slid, half-fell off the edge of her stool.

Chuck Wendell caught the woman and helped her back up. She hung onto him, plastering her body against the blond officer who took full advantage by palming her ass.

With a body like that, Shane could hardly blame the guy for taking the opportunity to touch. The brunette had the perfect amount of curves top and bottom without being heavy, or stick thin. He skimmed his gaze back up. Sexy heels, gorgeous legs, and a tight dress to show off all her assets.

She shifted, and a glimpse of her profile set off a spark of recognition. Without the full view of her face, however, his brain couldn’t quite make a connection.

Someone’s had a few, he observed.

That one came in on a mission, one of the other guys at the table said. She’s leaving with someone tonight.

Not one of the regulars, is she? Some of the girls marked their calendars for the convention each year. In fact, he’d already spotted Brenda and Sue at a table in the back. Nice girls who liked the badge no matter who was wearing the uniform, though they didn’t usually get drunk for their fun.

Nope, Mike confirmed. She arrived by herself and downed a couple shots right off the bat. After scoping out her options, she started flirting with Wendell halfway into her second gin and tonic.

Wendell was a good-looking guy, but the jerk just wanted to add as many bunnies to his rap sheet as possible. Some would say the censure was ironic considering he himself dated enough to earn the reputation of local town playboy in Pulaski. Difference was, his sole objective was to have fun with women who had a mutual goal of enjoying each other, not keep score when he scored.

How do you know what she’s drinking?

Heard her order when I got the bucket.

Ah.

The conversation moved on, and Shane finished his beer while keeping tabs on the interactions between Wendell and the woman. Unable to shake the feeling he was missing something, he grabbed the empty bucket and stood. I got the next round.

At the bar, he sidled up to the left of the brunette as she tossed her hair back again. The soft, sweet-scented strands swished across his face, clinging to the stubble on his jaw.

Whoops, sorry, she giggled, turning to offer him a grin. She swayed on the seat as her green eyes met his. They were glazed over, confirming her impairment.

Hooking up at a bar was one thing if everyone knew the endgame, but even Wendell should know this girl was past the point of consent. He instantly re-evaluated not blaming the guy for taking advantage.

Shane’s attention expanded beyond her pretty eyes, and his own widened a bit as recognition hit him in the gut.

Lora Howell.

Damn. She’d been two grades ahead of him in high school, but the last time he’d spoken directly to the woman was when he’d had to go to her house with a fellow officer to break the news her husband had been killed in a car accident. A bad one, too. Not much left of the body.

That had been a little over a year ago, in March—and she’d been seven months pregnant with the couple’s second child.

He’d seen her around Pulaski a few times with her two little boys in the past year. Beautiful. Sexy. Sophisticated. Interest had sparked, but something about her still seemed fragile.

Maybe because he’d witnessed firsthand the moment when her life had changed forever.

And then there was the time last November when they’d come face to face at the pie booth during the Fall Festival at Whispering Pines, when he’d broken up a situation with a knife and a kiss between Nash Riley, and her younger sister, Josie. The moment his gaze had met Lora’s, painful emotion from their previous meeting flashed in her eyes. He’d felt awful for having reminded her of her grief, and hadn’t attempted to talk to her then, or any other time since.

Besides being a single mom, she was a smart career woman who worked her ass off. Or so his friends Sam and Nikki Mallin had said one night over dinner not too long ago. Nikki watched the two boys in her home daycare, and despite the hardships Lora had endured as a young widow, it sounded like she had her shit together.

So, what the hell was she doing getting plastered at a bar in Green Bay on a Tuesday night? She didn’t recognize him, that much was clear from her blank expression. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved, or concerned.

No problem, he murmured in response to her apology before turning away. He lifted the bucket to signal the bartender, and the guy nodded his acknowledgement.

As he waited, he heard Chuck suggest, Let’s get outta here.

Lora’s back pressed up against Shane’s shoulder as if she’d shifted away from the other guy’s invitation. The heat of her warmed his arm. After a moment of hesitation, she said, Um…one more drink. Then I’ll be ready.

Baby, you said that after the last one.

I know. But jess one more.

Shane laid his money on the bar for the beer, his jaw clenched at her slurred words.

Okay, Chuck agreed, his tone disgruntled. But then we’re leaving.

"O-kay."

Shane hung his head, eyes squeezed shut as he cursed Butch Walsh. He could’ve been home in bed by now. But no—now he was about to screw up his whole damn night. He was too damn tired for this shit.

He lifted his head as the bartender swapped out the empty bucket for a full one and swiped the money off the bar. Keep the change, he told him.

Thanks.

Wendell leaned forward before the guy could leave. We’ll have another round here.

No you won’t.

Shane’s firm denial earned him a dark glare from the other officer. I don’t see where it’s any of your business.

I’m making it my business. He gave a sharp shake of his head at the bartender, grabbed the bucket of beer with one hand, and gripped Lora’s arm with the other. Come on, time for you to go home.

She slid off the stool, squinting up at Shane with a tiny frown marring her forehead. Hey…I know you.

Yes, you do.

Chuck stood to block their path. "Quit poaching. I’m taking her home, Parker."

No, you’re not. Not unless you want me to arrest you.

Goes both ways.

Not even close, and you know it. He leaned past Lora to glower at Wendell. You already give the badge a bad name, so back the fuck off.

A hand against his stomach made Shane jump. He looked down to see Lora fisting her free hand in his navy polo to drag the shirt halfway up his chest. She eyed his exposed torso and made a hmming noise deep in her throat.

Yeah. You’ll do. When her gaze rose again, she swayed against him with a sloppy smile. Let’s go.

He blinked. What the hell?

Wendell gave a disgusted snort. Whatever, asshole. She’ll be passed out in no time anyway.

The guy shoved past a couple bystanders, and Shane clenched his fingers on the plastic bucket full of beer bottles. He twisted to look for Mike and found the table of Wausau officers watching the scene with interest. Shane arched a brow and lifted the bucket. His buddy hopped up and came to get the drinks so he could use both hands to hold Lora upright.

Now what? Mike asked.

I take her home. We don’t live that far from each other in Pulaski, actually.

I don’t want to go home, she protested. Not yet. Not until…

Her voice trailed off as she slid her hand underneath his shirt. Her touch caressed his stomach and began to slide lower. A rush of heat surged through his veins as if she’d flipped an ON switch.

Shit.

She was warm and evidently willing, but aware was also on his list of requirements.

Shane sucked in a breath as he grabbed her hand to stop its descent below the waistband of his tan khakis. Easy, sweetheart. He gave Mike a tense smile. Catch ya later, man.

You here tomorrow?

He shook his head. Both my programs were today.

All right, then I’ll see ya around. His gaze shifted to the intoxicated woman in Shane’s arms. Good luck with her. Careful she doesn’t puke in your truck.

Great. Thanks.

He started leading Lora toward the door, but she resisted. I don’t want to go home. I want another drink.

You’ve had more than enough.

Kiss me, and I’ll know.

His step faltered. Know what?

If I’m drunk enough to sleep with you.

"You’re too drunk to sleep with me."

Her forehead scrunched up as they neared the door. I am?

Definitely. Unfortunately.

Well, damn.

He agreed, even though he chuckled at the consternation in her voice. I can’t even take that as a compliment seeing as how your first choice was Chuck.

Who’s Chuck?

The guy you almost went home with. And why, by the way, would you do that?

My husband is a bastard.

Shane cut his gaze down to her bent head. Her husband was dead. She knew that, right? She wasn’t wearing her wedding ring, so—

Where are we goin’? she asked as they exited the bar into the cooling night air.

Home, he said patiently. And maybe calling one of your sisters to see what the hell is going on.

Oooh. A few more steps and she pulled to a stop. Wait. You’re a cop. Right?

I am.

Good.

The single word was filled with relief. She started him walking again, and he steered her toward his truck with a supportive arm around her waist. Why is that good? he asked, fishing his keys from his pocket.

Cuz cops are good. I’m okay with you.

You don’t know me. Not really. And you certainly didn’t know Chuck.

Cops are good, she repeated.

Her faith in the badge was nice, but a little too naïve to put herself in such a vulnerable situation.

She stumbled in her high heels, and he caught her against him to keep her from falling. Her arms wound around his neck and all her soft, sexy curves pressed up against him from thigh to chest. The simmer in his blood rose a few more degrees. Normally, a drunk woman had the opposite effect on him, so what was it about this one that slipped past all his turn-offs?

How do I know you? Her warm breath feathered against the underside of his jaw a moment before her lips pressed to his skin.

He grit his teeth against temptation and set her away. You don’t want to know.

Why not?

Bad memories.

Her nod made him wonder if she’d finally realized who he was. At his truck, he thumbed the button for the locks, and then reached for the handle. She pushed off his chest to lean against the passenger door before he could pull it open.

My husband is dead.

Nope, recognition hadn’t clicked yet. I know.

He cheated on me.

I’m sorry.

With another woman, she added, her voice full of outraged disbelief.

Would you have preferred it be a man? Shane asked before he realized it wasn’t something to joke about.

Maybe. She did laugh, but a moment later, it turned into a sob.

Shit.

I’m sorry, he repeated, moving closer to pull her into a gentle hug. He ran his hand down the length of her silky hair as she leaned into his body, head tucked under his chin.

I was pregnant with our son, and he was having an affair with another woman. Her broken voice was muffled against his shirt.

Bastard.

Thanks. She heaved a shuddering sigh, then pushed him back a step. I just found out today.

Understanding dawned as he lowered his arms. For the drinking part anyway. Is that why you’re here instead of home with your boys?

She nodded, her palm still flat on his chest. I figured I’d show him.

And now the come-on part made sense, too. Lora, going home with some random guy only hurts you, not your dead husband.

I know. She hung her head as her hand slid down his torso, fingers trailing lightly over his shirt. I figured that out two drinks in, so I had a few more.

Liquid courage for something she didn’t really want to do. At least she was sounding more intelligible now, as if it were more than alcohol talking. Maybe she wasn’t as drunk as he’d thought.

He cast a glance toward the hotel thirty yards away as he asked, You ready to go home then?

My sister’s babysitting.

That’s good. You won’t be alone when you get there.

Light from the street illuminated her upturned face, brightening her glazed eyes as they searched his. Though he couldn’t quite identify the dark emotion simmering in those green depths, he was drawn in without much hope of resisting.

Her gaze slid over his face as she stepped forward. Her hand rose, and she pressed her fingers against his mouth. An involuntary indrawn breath parted his lips beneath her touch.

Her pupils dilated even more