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Read free romance: A Better Forever


CHAPTER 1


A high-pitched squeal shredded what was left of Connor’s nerves. He watched as another woman—a short, buxom blonde in an Emerald evening dress clutching a Gucci handbag—fawned all over his rock-star brother.


Maybe meeting Ben and Carly for dinner in Minneapolis was a bad idea.


Connor rubbed his temples. It wasn’t Ben’s fault he could play the guitar like a god and drag people under his spell with his voice. But why couldn’t he have stayed on the Range and played in the local bars on weekends? Instead he was friggin’ famous


Connor pushed his plate away, his appetite gone. He knew it wasn’t fair to blame Ben for his good fortune, but geez, Connor was the only Lawson sibling with a ‘normal’ job.


A boring job.


Heck, even Carly saved lives as a ski patrol member.


He turned to his sister. “I’m going to head back to my hotel.”


She gave him a sympathetic look. “I’m stuck with him.” She jerked her head toward Ben, who was busy signing the woman’s shirt—above her breasts.


“My condolences,” he said dryly.


“At least this time we got to finish our food,” she said.


He stood and bent to give her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Tell Ben I’ll catch up with him later.”


It was easy enough to slip away when everyone only had eyes for Ben…


Fresh air wrapped around Connor as he stepped out onto the sidewalk. He’d left the company car in the Hyatt parking garage, but it was considerably colder now than when he’d walked over. He shoved his hands in his pockets and strolled in the direction of the hotel. It was a clear night, but here in downtown Minneapolis he couldn’t see the stars.


Not like at home…


It’d been a March night just like this when he’d first met Melina. Senior year at Wheaton College in Illinois, too broke to go anywhere over spring break, he’d come back to Minnesota for a week—and had fallen for her. He’d been so idealistic then, even turning down job offers in Minneapolis to stay on the Iron Range.


Now, twelve years of marriage and two kids later, he missed the intimacy they’d shared in those early days.


Especially the sexual intimacy.


The last time he’d attempted that kind of connection, she’d claimed she was too tired. The thought of what he’d done after that caused guilt to prickle his skin.


You could watch it again right now…


He squashed the shiver of anticipation the thought gave him. Instead, he focused on Mel. He hadn’t texted her once today; he’d been too busy trying to figure out where four hundred thousand dollars had gone. No matter who’d screwed up—it sure as hell wasn’t him—he was the one on the hot seat when it came to the board of directors.


“Hey mister, you got a dollar?”


His head jerked toward the voice. The speaker stood hunched under the awning of a pawn shop. He wore an old Army jacket and tattered jeans.


Homeless.


Connor looked away.


“I didn’t think so,” Army jacket said.


The guy reminded him of the veterans Mel volunteered with at Haven for Heroes; he’d met some of them when Mel roped him into helping with the last fundraiser. She often said they were just plain lost as well as homeless.


Connor stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and pulled out his wallet. He extracted a twenty-dollar bill and held it out toward the man. “You got somewhere warm to stay tonight?”


The man’s surprised eyes lifted from the bill to Connor’s face. “Yeah, I got a place,” he said.


A place could mean anything from a temporary shelter to a car to a sleeping bag in an underpass, but Connor didn’t press. “Good,” he said.


The man hesitated.


“Take it,” Connor said. “It’s yours.”


The man reached for the bill as if he expected Connor to pull it back at any moment. “Thanks, man,” he said.


Connor nodded and headed for Fourth Street. His family had been poor at times—that’s the way it was in mining country—but they’d never been homeless.


He had a sudden urge to talk to Mel. Ignoring the cold, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and dialed her number.


Unfortunately, it was her voice mail that greeted him. “This is Mel. Leave me a message and I’ll get back to you!”


“Hey, honey,” he said. “Busy day in meetings. Just finished having dinner with Ben and Carly. I guess he’s going back out on tour in another week. Anyway, just wanted to touch base. Say hi to the kids for me. Love you.”


He stepped through the automated doors of the Hyatt Hotel and glanced at the hotel bar. It wasn’t even eight o’clock, and he hadn’t finished his drink at dinner. And frankly, a drink was probably safer than too much time alone in his hotel room.


He headed for the bar and was surprised to see Jorgen Peterson, CEO of Mesabi Fabricators (and his boss) perched on one of the stools. He hesitated, but Jorgen turned and caught sight of him. “Connor!” he said. “Have a seat! Let me buy you a drink.”


Connor studied the other man. If he didn’t know better, he’d think Jorgen was more than a little tipsy.


“Jameson’s your drink of choice, am I right?” Jorgen said.


Connor nodded.


Jorgen signaled to the bartender. “Make it two.”


Connor took the stool next to Jorgen. He and Jorgen would never be bosom buddies, but he respected the other man and had shared many meals and drinks with him.


His Jameson appeared in front of him and he took a sip. Beside him, Jorgen did the same.

“Ah, that’s good,” Jorgen said. “You have good taste.”


Jorgen slurred slightly on the word taste, and Connor realized his first impression had been right. How many drinks had Jorgen had?


“Did you find the forty thou?” Jorgen said.


Four hundred thousand.


Connor didn’t correct his boss. “Not yet, but I will.”


Jorgen nodded. “I know you will.”


Connor’s chest swelled just a little; this was what made the stress of his job bearable. Jorgen believed in him, and so did the other executives. And as long as he did his job right, the 350 employees of Mesabi Fabricators could count on having a steady paycheck to support their families—unlike his dad, whose work in the mines had been on-again, off-again all through Connor’s childhood.


Jorgen stared up at the TV in the corner. “Something’s on my mind, Connor.”


“Something’s always on your mind.” Connor tried to lighten the mood; he’d never seen Jorgen this drunk. “That’s why you get paid the big bucks.”


“This is something I shouldn’t be telling you,” Jorgen said.


Then don’t.


Connor didn’t say it; he was too curious about what could cause the CEO to get shit-faced.

Jorgen’s gaze slid from the TV to Connor. “Mesabi Fabricators is being acquired.”


Connor almost laughed, but something in Jorgen’s expression stopped him cold. The man might be drunk, but he wasn’t joking. “By whom?”


“United Steel out of Seattle,” Jorgen said.


Connor made a mental note to look up United Steel ASAP. “When?”


“By fall,” Jorgen said.


Six months.


Connor glanced through the glass partition between the bar and the hotel lobby. “You make it sound like it’s a done deal.”


“It is.”


“That doesn’t make sense,” Connor said, almost to himself. “We haven’t had a single unprofitable year. We don’t need them.”


“The board of directors hold a lot of stock options—and apparently they’ve received an offer they can’t refuse,” Jorgen said. “Since they write our checks, there’s not much we can do about it. Short of an act of God or the government, the acquisition’s going to happen. Unless…”


“Unless what?” Connor said.


“Between you and me…” Jorgen waggled a finger between them. “We could stop it.”


“I don’t see how,” Connor said.


“If the financial picture were different, the offer might not be good enough for the board to accept,” Jorgen said.


Connor blinked. “Are you asking me to…?”


“Numbers are manipulated all the time,” Jorgen said. “You know that better than anyone. And you’re one of the best. I should know—I supported your promotion.”


A chill ran down Connor’s spine. He and Jorgen butted heads fairly often; that was part and parcel of running a multi-billion-dollar manufacturing company. But this was different…


“What am I gonna do, Connor?” Jorgen said. “Executive jobs are next-to-impossible to come by on the Iron Range, and I’m fifty-five years old. No one’s gonna wanna hire me.”


“United Steel won’t get rid of you,” Connor said.


“Yeah, they will,” Jorgen said grimly. “And you, too.”


The chill spread outward to Connor’s limbs; he’d studied this subject in college and he knew the new company would be looking to eliminate redundancies.


How many of Mesabi’s employees would be considered redundant?


Jorgen took another sip of his Jameson. “A whole lot of other people will be out of a job too, when United Steel decides to move operations to Seattle.”


“They might not,” Connor said.


“They’ll say they won’t,” Jorgen said darkly. “But they will. It’s just a matter of time.”


Connor’s chest tightened. Good jobs were hard to come by on the Iron Range in Minnesota (so named for all the mining operations that were long past their heyday). But to do something that skimmed the borders of legality?


No.


Not happening.


And Jorgen would never have suggested it if he hadn’t been drinking—he hoped.


Connor tossed back the rest of his drink. “I’m going to pretend this conversation never happened.” His glass made a solid thump when he set it back on the bar. “I suggest you do the same.”


He’d only made it a few feet out of the bar when the craving surfaced, insistent, its whispered promises burning his ears and twining around his chest.


Ten minutes later he was four blocks over but a world away from the Hyatt Hotel.


The neon sign beckoned him, and he paused on the sidewalk, fighting the internal battle he’d fought so many times before. He loved Mel. He loved his kids. But he couldn’t keep his feet from taking him through that door.


********************


Melina Lawson waited in the entrance area of the hockey rink with some of the other moms. Her son loved the game, but it seemed like they never got a break from it. For the past two months, they’d had practice, games, and tournaments back-to-back—and Kurt was only twelve!


It wouldn’t be so bad if she had a little help from Connor. He was gone as much as he was home, it seemed—and even when he wasn’t travelling, he rarely arrived home in time for dinner, let alone for Kurt’s practice or Andie’s rehearsals, or even youth group at the church on Wednesday nights. A chore she thought they would share when they decided to start a family—shuttling the kids to their activities—had become almost exclusively hers.


It didn’t leave much time for friends or her own interests or hobbies, that’s for sure.


Oh, how she craved some quiet time with her husband. Time for the two of them to talk about everything and nothing, like they had in the beginning. For the simple act of touching…


At the thought of Connor, she pulled her phone out of her pocket and glanced at the display. Darn it, she’d missed his call; she must not have heard it ring in the noisy ice arena.


Before she could think about calling him back, the players started streaming out of the locker area.


Kurt was one of the first. “Mom!” he said. “Did you see my deke?”


Mel knew a deke was a sort of fake shooting move, but she didn’t always recognize them. “I think so. Second period, right?”


“Yeah.” Kurt led the way out of the arena, and Mel nearly tripped on the bulky gear bag trailing behind him. “I almost had the goal.”


His shots on goal were getting better all the time. “Almost,” she said.


She clicked the button to open the hatch of her Honda CRV so Kurt could put his bag in back. She slid behind the wheel. “We have to stop at the fabric store on the way home,” she said.


Kurt groaned. “But I’m hungry!”


Mel forced a smile. “I’m sure you are; you used a lot of calories tonight. But I made a commitment to the youth director at church. She’s relying on me to get the angel costumes done in time for the Easter play, and I can’t do it tomorrow because I work.”


“Why do you have to be part of that dumb play?” Kurt said.


She closed her eyes and prayed for patience. “It’s not dumb, and I like being involved in your and your sister’s lives.” She dug in her purse, and was relieved to find a granola bar. She handed it to Kurt over the seat. “Here, eat this.”


“Mom, that’s not enough!” he whined.


“You’re not going to starve!” Her voice was sharper than she intended.


How did this become her life? All those years of taking care of her mom when she was sick, then finally realizing, when she got to college, that she could do anything she wanted. She could be anything she wanted.


Oh, she’d had plans. Plans that had changed when she’d met Connor. She didn’t regret having kids—never—but this wasn’t quite the way she thought parenting would look, that’s for sure!


She sighed. “After we stop at the fabric store, I’ll drop you off at home and you can make a pizza while I go pick up your sister.”


Kurt frowned but said nothing more as she put the car in gear and pulled out of the parking lot.


********************


The darkness embraced Connor like an old friend, luring him deeper into the building, toward the thumping beat and flashing lights.


He slid into an empty lounge seat and ordered another Jameson from a scantily-clad waitress.


You shouldn’t be here.



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