Beauty and Her One-Night Baby
BOOK 2 in the Feuding Billionaire Brothers
The print edition of this book begins shipping on May 19, 2020
The digital edition begins downloading on June 1, 2020
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“I’m in labor,” she said tightly. “It’s yours.”
— Scarlett, Beauty and Her One-Night Baby
I was secretly calling this duet the Brother’s Grim even before my editor asked if I could give it a Beauty and the Beast spin, but I was so happy to!
Javiero was supposed to be the ‘good’ brother. The one who was honourable and devoted to his family and the legitimate heir. His mother was briefly married to Javiero’s father, Niko, until she learned that Niko’s mistress was pregnant with Val from A Hidden Heir to Redeem Him. Val, for all his darkness, is fallen angel beautiful. Javiero was always compared to his brother and found wanting in the looks department. Now not even ruggedly handsome. He’s disfigured and people are keeping their children away from him.
Scarlett is a beauty, inside and out, but she doesn’t feel it. She had a rough childhood and she has worked really hard to help her family, but they still behave in ways that make her feel her background is a blight on her character. Between that and the move to Spain and the new baby, she catches a bad case of the baby blues and feels even worse about herself.
I won’t spoil the end, but I will say that Scarlett does help break the spell that has left Javiero embittered most of his life. I hope you enjoy their story!
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Beauty and Her One-Night Baby
Her water broke.
Horrified, Scarlett Walker hoped if she didn’t look, it wouldn’t be true. She stared at the hook on the back of the stall door where her handbag hung and prayed she was wrong.
She knew what had happened, though. There was no mistaking such an event and no, no, nooo. This was supposed to happen next week, at the island villa that had been her home for the last six years. Or last week, when she’d been sitting vigil at her employer’s bedside. Anytime but today.
Not now. Please not now.
It was a futile wish. In fact, she should have predicted this would happen. She had so many butterflies in her stomach, they were knocking her baby clean out of her right before she walked into a boardroom to face a small but extremely volatile group of personalities—including the baby’s father.
What would he say?
She’d found Javiero Rodriguez dynamic and powerful and intimidating before she’d slept with him. For nine months, she’d been dreading and anticipating this moment when she would finally face him again.
Now she had to rush off to the hospital. Thanks a lot, baby, she thought with a fleck of ironic hysteria. She wouldn’t have to face any of them. Saved!
But how was this her life? The Walker colors were shining brightly in her today. If there was a way to turn an everyday, natural occurrence into a trashy satire, the Walkers were there to make it happen. Scarlett wanted to sit back down on the toilet and cry her eyes out.
No time for that, though. With a sob of desperation, she fumbled her phone from her handbag and texted her best friend, Kiara.
My water broke. Help!
She pulled up the skirt she had so recently wriggled into place over her hips. Only her maternity underwear and one shoe were wet. She wrangled herself out of the unflattering cotton knickers with the stretchy front panel and discarded them into the bin. Don’t need that anymore.
Shakily, she left the stall long enough to wet a hand towel and grab a small stack of the folded ones off the shelf. Thank God it was empty in here. She edged back into the narrow stall and closed the door, then dropped the towels on the floor to blot up the puddle while she gave herself the quickest of birdbaths.
She had let her doctor’s “Any day” yesterday go in one ear and out the other. Had she really expected this baby would stay inside her forever?
Kind of. She’d had so much going on, she hadn’t let herself think about anything more than ensuring her healthy pregnancy, not actually projecting to this moment when the baby would actually arrive—or how that event would unfold.
Who had time for labor when she was facing a ton of work finalizing Niko’s burial arrangements and continuing to manage his estate. Then there was Kiara’s show in Paris. She had promised to help her with her artist’s statement and had somehow deluded herself into believing she could attend.
Really, Scarlett? Due next week, yet planning to fly to Paris in three?
Denial was a wonderful thing—until it stopped working. It was screeching to a halt while she stood on these hand towels, waiting for Kiara, deliberately avoiding thoughts on how Javiero would react to everything he would learn today.
Not for the first time, she tried to will herself back in time and make a different decision. She’d been processing her employer’s refusal of further treatment and frustrated with certain decisions he had made with regards to his errant sons. Maybe those two men didn’t deserve much consideration, given their mulish refusal to see their father in his last days, but Scarlet had been compelled to prod them one last time.
Valentino Casale had never been cooperative with her so she hadn’t expected any better than the brush-off he’d given her. Javiero, however, possessed a more solid sense of family. A heart.
She wanted to believe.
Maybe it was wishful thinking on her part.
What Javiero had in spades was a magnetism she had barely been able to resist the handful of times she’d met with him. It had always taken everything in her to keep from betraying her reaction to him.
He must have known. He was too smoldering and sophisticated and experienced to not know when a woman was swooning over him. Maybe he’d even privately laughed at her for it. Maybe that’s why he’d made a move that day. He’d had probably sensed she’d mentally slept with him a thousand times and was dying to make it reality.
She hadn’t expected it to happen, though. Not really. Seeing him at all had been a rare overstep on her part, moving beyond the tight constraints of her employer’s dictates and acting on her own volition. She was still trying to explain to herself how she’d been in Madrid at all, let alone wound up in Javiero’s bed.
A quiet sense of injustice had driven her. She knew that much. Had she also been affected on a basic level by Niko’s failing health? Had she longed to assert the beginnings of life to hold off the shadows closing in on the end of one?
Or had it been as simple as a secretive yearning on her part to have a final connection with a man she would never have an excuse to see again, once Niko was gone?
She didn’t expect that Javeiro would give her the time of day after his father’s death. As it was, he only tolerated her in deference to his mother. Javiero’s attitude toward Scarlett had always been… Not hostile, but disparaging. He hadn’t liked that she worked for his father. He couldn’t respect her for it.
She had no idea how he would react to her pregnancy. Perhaps she’d been in a bit of denial then, too, not expecting their passionate afternoon could change her life—or create one! By the time she had suspected and had it confirmed, though, she had not only desperately wanted this baby, she had seen a poetic sort of balancing of scales in her carrying Javiero’s baby.
Not that Niko had viewed it that way. He’d been a hard man. A nightmare to work for, actually, and suddenly cynical of her motives. They’d had an extremely rare disagreement when she told him—rare because until then, Scarlett had made a career of acting on his command.
You went behind my back, he had accused her.
I told them you were dying because they deserved to know. She stood by that, even though he’d been angry at her for it.
Surprisingly, her push-back had earned his grudging respect, proving her tough enough in his eyes to take control of his holdings. He’d added her baby to his will, too, ensuring Javiero’s child would inherit the half of his fortune that Javiero had declined.
And life-altering as this pregnancy was proving to be, she didn’t regret it. She patted her swollen belly, excited to meet him or her.
Just. Not. Today.
Where was Kiara?
Into her ruminations a strange sensation accosted her. A faint, dull ache grew more insistent in her lower back. Tension wrapped outward until it squeezed across her middle.
Well, duh. Of course, that’s what was happening, but, Come on! She nearly pounded her fist against the wall in frustration.
What had she thought, though? That she would still go into that meeting, bare as a Scotsman under her skirt while she looked her baby’s father in the eye and admitted…
She hung her head in her hands and bit back a whimper.
The main door opened. She lifted her head, relief washing over her. As she started to call out, however, she realized the person she could see through the crack in the door didn’t have Kiara’s voluptuous figure or curly black hair.
Oh, dear Lord. That slender woman in a bone-colored skirt suit was Paloma Rodriguez, Javiero’s mother.
Scarlett never swore, but she tilted her head back and mouthed a number of really filthy words at the ceiling. She texted Kiara again, suspecting Kiara had silenced her phone for the meeting.
Why was this her life?
Javiero’s mother was smoothing her hair, checking her make-up, unconsciously betraying how important it was that she appear flawless to the rest of the people in that boardroom, most particularly her rival for a dead man’s affections.
Scarlett had to make a split-second decision. No matter how this day played out, Javiero would finally learn she was having his baby. She wanted him to hear it from her.
As his mother started to leave, Scarlett forced a quavery, “Senora Rodriguez? It’s me, Scarlett.”
Paloma’s footsteps paused and she spoke with guarded surprise, “Yes?”
“Is Javiero waiting for you in the corridor?”
“I’d like to speak with him. In private. In, um, here.”
Global warming ended and the modern ice age arrived in one glacial word. “Why?”
Shifting to open the door was awkward, given her full-term belly. Scarlett wrestled herself around it and watched Paloma’s gaze drop to her middle. Her eyes nearly fell out of her head and rolled across the floor.
“I need to speak to him,” Scarlett said as another contraction looped around her abdomen and squeezed a fresh gasp from her lungs.
Javiero Rodriguez was unfit to be in public, not physically and not mentally.
He’d showered, but he was unshaven and should have gone to his barber before leaving Madrid, but had blown off the nicety—which wasn’t like him. For most of his thirty-three years, he had passionately adhered to tradition and expectation. He’d had a family dynasty to restore, his mother’s reputation to repair, and his own superiority to assert.
He had achieved all of those things and more besides, becoming a dominant force in global financial markets and one of the world’s most eligible bachelors. He was known to be charming and intelligent and an excellent dancer who dressed impeccably well.
Despite all that, a sense of satisfaction had always eluded him.
Javiero had come to accept this vague discontent as ‘life.’ Happily Ever After was, as anyone with a brain in his head could deduce, a fairy tale. He had experienced the bleakness of financial anxiety and the bitterness of powerlessness. Of a father who belittled him and abused his trust, one who didn’t so much as offer a shovel to help him dig himself out of the hole he had shoved him into. He had tasted grief when the grandfather he revered had passed away. All of that had taught him ennui was the best one could hope for.
World-weariness was a luxury he no longer enjoyed, however. Three weeks ago, he had nearly lost his life. He had lost an eye and was left with scars that would be with him forever. He looked like a monster and felt like one.
As he ran a frustrated hand into his hair, his fingertips reflexively lifted in repulsion from the tender line where his scalp had been sewn back on. He shouldn’t be inflicting his gruesome self on helpless receptionists and unsuspecting coffee-fetchers. It was a cruelty.
His mother needed reinforcement, though. She had stood by him when nearly everyone else was giving him a wide berth. His uncles and cousins, people he financially supported, were taking one look and keeping their children away. His ex-fiancée, whose idiotic idea of being interesting was to keep an exotic pet menagerie, had dropped him like a hot potato once she’d seen the damage.
Not that he was stung anywhere but in his ego by her rejection. Their proposed marriage had been an effort to rescuehis pride. He saw that now and it only made his foul, obdurate mood worse. What a pathetic fool he was.
Grim malevolence was his companion now. It had become as entrenched in him as the deep grooves carved into his face and body. It clouded around him like a cologne gone off. It had sunk into his bones with the insidiousness of a virus or a spell, making his joints stiff and his heart a lump of concrete.
Staring with one eye down at the streets of Athens, a city and country he had sworn never to set foot in again, he dreamed only of burning this whole place down.
Your family stands to inherit a significant portion of the estate, his father’s lawyer had said. All parties must be present at the reading of the will for dispersal to move forward.
Javiero didn’t want any of his father’s money. He didn’t want to be here in his father’s office tower and couldn’t stand the idea of listening to yet another version of his father’s idea of ‘fair.’
For his mother’s sake, and what she stood to gain, he had relented. She had been treated horribly by Nikolai Mylonas and deserved compensation. If Javiero’s presence could help her finally gain what should have rightfully been hers, so be it. Here he was.
He didn’t have it in him to muster pretty manners, though. His already thin patience was tested by the prospect of listening to his mother chase principles his father had never possessed. She would argue one more time that herson was Niko’s legitimateheir and Javierowas legally entitled to everything.
Then he would have to listen to his father’s one-time and always-scheming mistress, Evelina, argue that his half-brother, Val, was two days older than Javiero, therefore all the money should go to them.
Mine, mine, mine. The sickening refrain continued despite the instrument being dead.
Javiero wished the damned jaguar had finished him off. He really did.
As for Scarlett…? His grim mood skipped in and out of its channel, sparking and grinding at the mere thought of her.
She had called once while he was in hospital. Once. On behalf of his dying father. His mother had informed her that Javiero would survive and that had been all Scarlett had needed to hear. Not another word, no card or flowers. Nothing.
Why did that bother him? Until the last time he’d seen her, she had always been a very businesslike and unflappable P.A. Almost pathological in her devotion to his father. She would turn up in one of her pencil-skirts, blond hair gathered at her nape, delicate features flawlessly accented with natural tones and she would irritate the hell out of him with her one-track agenda.
Your father wants me to inform you that he’s aware you’re behind the hostile takeover in Germany. He is willing to give you control of his entire operation if you come back to Athens and run it.
Or, Evelina has made a specific request for funds. Niko has granted it. This is your mother’s equivalent amount. If you would like to speak to him about—
And then that final meeting. Your father has run out of treatment options. He is unlikely to survive the year. Now would be the time to come see him.
She had finally cracked and it had been fascinating.
She hadn’t understood how he couldn’t care one single rat’s behind about his father or his father’s money. You don’t want what is rightfully yours? What if it all goes to Val?
That had caught his attention. If it was up to Javiero, Val could have every last cursed euro, but his mother would be devastated. WasNiko planning to leave it to Val?
No, Scarlett had assured him, but that hadn’t been the whole truth. Come and see him, she had insisted, looking ready to take him by the ear to accomplish it. He hadn’t understood what had driven her so vehemently. It wasn’t love for his father. She had never said a harsh word about Niko, but she’d never said a kind one, either.
There had been a mystery there, Javiero had felt it, but he had refused all the same, annoyed that she was instilling a genuine temptation in him to solve it. He wanted to go with her when he had sworn nothing would ever induce him to see his father or visit that island again for any reason.
He’d sensed a finality to her visit, though. There’d been a futility in her that told him he wouldn’t see her again after this. It had added a layer of desperation to their power struggle. The tension had become sexual and had burst into a passionate encounter that had left him reeling.
But only him, it would seem. He had continued to think about her months later while she had left before the dinner hour, choosing to go back to work for a man Javiero hated with every fiber of his being, rather than remain with her new lover.
That had been before he looked like hell. Would she be repulsed by his injuries when she saw him? Indifferent?
Why should he care what she thought?
He didn’t. But he entertained a small, malicious fantasy where he pointed out his disfigurement was only physical. Scarlett had character flaws.
“Javiero.” His mother’s voice behind him held such heightened emotion, the hair lifted on the back of his neck. Shock and urgency and something bordering on triumph?
He swung from the window in the small sitting area and almost had to reach for the back of a sofa to catch his balance. He was still getting used to his lack of depth-perception.
His mother had insisted on rechecking her impeccable appearance. Her black hair was still rolled into its customary bun, but she was pale beneath her make-up. Agitation seemed to grip her while there was a glow of avaricious excitement in her blue-green eyes.
“Go in there.” She nodded toward the door to the ladies’ room.
Javiero lifted his brows and felt the pull under his eye patch against scar tissue that hadn’t fully healed.
“Is there a problem? I’ll call maintenance.” That came from Nigel, the assistant who had met them at the south entrance. He had taken one aghast look at Javiero’s face and had kept his attention on Paloma ever since.
“No,” his mother said firmly. She stepped aside and waved at the door, prompting, “Javiero.”
With a snarl of impatience, he strode past his mother and shoved into the women’s toilet, halting abruptly at the sight of Scarlett turning from the sink.
Distantly he heard the door drift closed behind him while he took in her appearance. Her blond hair was gathered at her nape, her face was rounder, her blouse untucked and her tailored jacket open to allow for—
He cocked his head, widening his one eye, not sure he was seeing this correctly.
He yanked his gaze back to her face. Her expression was frozen in horror as she took in his shaggy hair and eye patch and gashed face poorly hidden by an untrimmed beard.
The word ‘pregnant’ landed in a pool of comprehension deep in his brain, sending a tidal wave of shock through his entire psyche.
Scarlett dropped her phone with a clatter.
She had been trying to call Kiara. Now she was taking in the livid claw marks across Javiero’s face, each pocked on either side with the pinpricks of recently removed stitches. His dark brown hair was longer than she’d ever seen it, perhaps gelled back from the widow’s peak at some point this morning, but it was mussed and held a jagged part. He wore a black eye-patch like a pirate, its narrow band cutting a thin stripe across his temple and into his hair.
Maybe that’s why his features looked as though they had been set askew? His mouth was…not right. His upper lip was uneven and the claw marks drew lines through his unkempt stubble all the way down into his neck.
That was dangerously close to his jugular! Dear God, he had nearly been killed.
She grasped at the edge of the sink, trying to stay on her feet while she grew so lightheaded at the thought of him dying, she feared she would faint.
The ravages of his attack weren’t what made him look so forbidding and grim, though, she computed through her haze of panic and anguish. No. That contemptuous glare in his one eye was for her. For this.
He flicked another outraged glance at her middle.
“I thought we were meeting in the boardroom.” His voice sounded graveled. Damaged as well? Or was that simply his true feelings toward her now? Deadly and completely devoid of any of the sensual admiration she’d sometimes heard in his tone.
Not that he’d ever been particularly warm toward her. He’d been aloof, indifferent, irritated, impatient, explosively passionate. Generous in the giving of pleasure. Of compliments. Then cold as she left. Disapproving. Malevolent.
And now he was, what? Ignoring that she was as big as a barn?
Her arteries were on fire with straight adrenaline, her heart pounding and her brain spinning with the way she was having to switch gears so fast. Her eyes were hot and her throat tight. Everything in her wanted to scream, Help me, but she’d been in enough tight spots to know this was all on her. Everything was always on her. She fought to keep her head and get through the next minutes before she moved on to the next challenge.
Which was just a tiny trial called childbirth, but she would worry about that when she got to the hospital.
As the tingle of a fresh contraction began to pang in her lower back, she tightened her grip on the edge of the sink and gritted her teeth, trying to ignore the coming pain and hang on to what dregs of dignity she had left.
“I’m in labor,” she said tightly. “It’s yours.”
Fresh shock flickered over his scarred face and his gaze dropped to her middle again. “I’m supposed to believe that?”
“My water broke. It’s a textbook sign.”
“You know what I mean.” His aggressive stance didn’t soften, but a tiny shadow flickered in his eye as he watched her draw in a long breath.
She was trying to bear the growing intensity of her contractions without a grimace, but it wasn’t working.
“Is it my father’s?”
“No!” She should have expected that, she supposed. Pretty much everyone believed she was more than Niko’s long-suffering P.A. She closed her eyes, wincing in both physical and emotional anguish as the pain peaked. “I don’t have time for a lot of explanations.” She tried for calm when her voice was still tight from the fading contraction. “Whether you believe this baby is yours by my word or after a DNA test doesn’t matter.” It mattered. She hated that he was so skeptical of her. It ground what little self-esteem she possessed well into the dust. “I have to go to the hospital, but I wanted to be the one to tell you that this is your baby. That’s what you would have learned in today’s meeting along with the fact that…”
He would never forgive her. She had known it even as she was staring at the positive test. Even as she was telling Niko and watching his eyes narrow with calculation. Even as she sat in meetings that secured her baby’s future and her own.
Even before she told him what Niko had done with his will, she could see stiff resistance taking hold in Javiero’s expression. He would never forgive her for any of this, including abiding by Niko’s wish that she hide her entire pregnancy from him. She hadn’t wanted to, but Niko had been dying at the time. She had agreed to delay telling Javiero because revealing her pregnancy would have caused the sort of war that Niko wouldn’t have been able to handle in his weakened condition. She had known that everything would come out now, after his death anyway.
So what was one more secret kept for nearly three years?
It was one more. When it came to Niko’s relationship with his two sons and the two women who had birthed them, every misdeed was a blow against someone. Getting between them meant getting knocked around herself.
It was going to hurt no matter what, so she waded in.
“You won’t inherit anything,” she informed him bluntly. “Exactly as you wished. Instead, Niko has split his fortune equally between his grandchildren.”
“Grandchildren.” It was strange to see his brows rise unevenly, one broken by the claw mark, the other still perfect and endearingly familiar. “Plural.”
“Yes. He has a granddaughter. Aurelia.” Who was adorable, not that Scarlett could say so because, “She’s Val’s.”
Javiero’s gaze turned icy at the mention of his half-brother. “Since when does Val have a daughter?”
“Since her mother, Kiara, gave birth to her two years ago. They’ve been living on the island with us since the middle of her pregnancy.”
“That’s not possible.” Javiero spoke with the cynical confidence of a lifetime of dealing with his father’s other family. “Evelina would have used a baby to influence Dad. You haven’t shown up with any equal opportunity checks for Mother.”
“Evelina doesn’t know.” Scarlett didn’t bother explaining how Evelina had dropped the rattle and Niko had picked it up. “Val doesn’t know, either. Niko didn’t want any of you to know. It would have caused fresh battles and he was too sick to weather them. Evelina and Paloma will each receive one million euros and the rest goes to Aurelia and…” She set her hand on her belly, willing the tingle in her back not to manifest into a fresh contraction.
“Well, isn’t that darling,” Javiero bit out. “He continues to treat us so fairlythat he kept our own children from us and burdens them equally with his damnable fortune. No wonder Mother looked so thrilled when she walked out of here. Did you tell her Val’s kid is getting half and she’s only getting one million?”
“No.” She struggled to hold his venomous glare.
“Coward,” he pronounced, but laughed harshly and shook his head. “More of his stupid, stupid games, right to the bitter end! And you’re still helping him.” He pointed in accusation. “You knew all of this when you came to Madrid that day. That day.”
He pointed at her middle. His contempt was a knife to her heart and despair threatened to encase her, but she shoved it away.
“I don’t have time to justify his actions or mine.” She teared up as she said it though, doubting he would ever see her side. He hated her. She could taste it on the air. “I have to go to the hospital.”
She glanced at her phone on the floor, face down and possibly cracked, definitely a million miles away when she could hardly breathe let alone touch her toes.
“Kiara is my birth coach. Will you get her for me? She’s not answering my texts.”
“The mother of Val’s baby is your birth coach?”
His derisive tone got her back up. She might not have much moral high ground to stand on, but she would die on this particular mound.
“Don’t disparage either of them. Aurelia is an innocent child and Kiara is the best friend I’ve ever had.” Her only friend, really. Better than a sister because they’d chosen each other. “Hate Niko and Val if you want to, but don’t you dare attack my friend and her child.”
Javiero’s hand smacked onto the marble that surrounded the sink, making her jump. He leaned into her space, looming like a terrifying raptor as he thrust his marred face up close to hers.
“Look me in the eye, Scarlett.” His breath was dragon fire against her cheek. “Is that my baby?”
His eyes had always been so fascinating to her, sea green with flecks of blue. Shifting and moody. So beautiful.
Now there was only one. She’d been in agony since she’d learned the extent of his injuries, desperate to go to him. If he hadn’t survived…
She pushed back desolation and bit her trembling lips, huskily saying, “It’s yours.”
He snorted with skepticism and shoved to straighten away from her, his retreat so full of contempt it felt as though he took a layer of her skin with him.
“I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, but the DNA test had better prove that baby is mine. And if that is my child, there is no way it will start its life defiled by that misbegotten half-brother of mine. I’lltake you to the hospital. Let’s go.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t come to the hospital after the attack,” Scarlett said in a low voice when they were in the back of his car.
Mentally, Javiero was in the pen, her pregnancy having struck him as unpredictably as that big cat, leaving him wrestling under the bite of words like ‘his,’ trying to evade the claws of ‘the money goes to…’
As her apology penetrated, he bristled and sat straighter, refusing to let her see how much her indifference had stung. He shouldn’t have cared either way.
“Why would you?” he asked distantly. He had asked her to stay and she’d made her choice, turning their torrid encounter into a one-afternoon stand. He knew how those worked.
And he hadn’t been fit company in hospital any more than he was today. That hadn’t stopped his mother from showing up every day, but as her only child, and her only link to his father’s fortune, Javiero had no illusions about her breadth of maternal concern. Paloma was no Evelina Casale when it came to unadulterated greed, but nor was she willing to let go of something she believed wholeheartedly belonged to her.
Paloma had gone to her hotel in a huff after they emerged from the ladies’ room. She’d been veryunimpressed by her entitlement to one million euros. It was nothing after all these years, but Javiero supported her financially. She wouldn’t go without. Any incidental funds she received from Niko was hers to throw away on an impulse trip to the Riviera or a vanity purchase in Paris. She could do the same with today’s top up.
“Your father was extremely ill when I heard,” Scarlett continued in that subdued voice, making it impossible for him to remain detached—not that he’d ever exceled at ignoring her. “I was keeping everything running in his stead and coordinating all his care workers.”
“You didn’t have time. I understand.” He kept his tone arid and emotionless yet conveyed how pathetic he found her excuses to be.
Good. He wasn’t about to sympathize or forgive her choice to continue working for a tyrant.
“And I was…” He heard her swallow before she admitted, “Showing.”
“You’re something else,” he muttered on a cynical laugh. “You want me to empathize with what a difficult position you were in? Because coming to the hospital would have revealed to me that you were carrying my child?” He’d been at his absolute lowest! Today wasn’t much better.
“Did you get pregnant on purpose?” It was the one question that kept pounding behind his brow. “To deliberately try to get your hands on his money?”
“If that’s all I wanted, I could have slept with Val,” she threw at him.
“Have you?” He would kill him. He really would.
“No. And Niko’s money isn’t coming to me. I’m entitled to an allowance to raise the baby in suitable comfort and I earn a salary for managing Niko’s estate, but the bulk will be held in trust for—”
Her mouth tightened and she sucked in a great breath, holding it.
Concern panged through his wall of anger as he watched the color in her cheeks fade. Perspiration appeared in a sheen on her upper lip.
“Aren’t you supposed to breathe or something?” he asked gruffly. That’s all he knew from the few programs he’d happened across that had featured a birthing scene. Usually it was a comedy that played the whole thing as a roaring joke.
She flashed him a glare of outrage, but after a moment her breath hissed out and her tension began to ease.
“You refused to see your own father,” she bit out. “How would I know your feelings on becoming one?”
“Ask,” he muttered, accosted by too many emotions to identify.
Did he feel guilty at not going to see his father? Not at all. Niko had cost him too much of his youth. All of it. Not just the innocence of childhood or the hardship his extended family had suffered after his mother divorced Niko, either. There had been the engineered conflicts with Val and the responsibilities he’d had to shoulder while watching his grandfather fail. The bleakness of a mother who was embittered and broken, incapable of being a real mother.
Now Niko had denied him his own child.
Javiero wanted to roar out his anger. He was furious that Scarlett had been by Niko’s side all these months. Niko should have died alone, the manipulative son of a bitch.
They arrived at the hospital. His driver had called ahead and a nurse was waiting with a wheelchair.
The nurse glanced at him with startled apprehension as he stepped from the car, a reaction he was getting used to, but it still made him want to snarl. He turned his back on her as he leaned in to help Scarlett shift across and out.
Bureaucracy ensued. Questions were asked and forms completed. Nurses took Scarlett’s blood pressure and temperature and helped her change into a hospital gown.
It gave him time to absorb that he was about to become a father. He trusted Scarlett on that much with instinctive certainty. She was too distraught to scheme. Besides, the timing worked and his father wouldn’t have named her baby his heir if he hadn’t been convinced that baby was his blood.
With acceptance of that came an avalanche of duty and anticipated sacrifice, the weight of it so heavy and voluminous, Javiero’s chest felt tight. He didn’t have room in his life for more. Time wasn’t a commodity in a well he could draw on when he needed more. How was he supposed to fit child-rearing into his already tightly packed days? The physiotherapy after his attack was a challenging addition to his calendar.
And what did he know of fathering? He spent the occasional hour with children of his cousins and other relatives, but they had proper, decent parents to go home to. The only example he’d had, an acrimonious mother and a domineering father, would have him breaking his child’s spirit before it could talk. Damn that old man and his continued manipulations!
Niko must have known what sort of hornet’s nest he was building by leaving his money to his grandchildren, but when had Nikolai Mylonas cared one iota for the suffering he caused? Javiero’s grandfather had been on the ropes, barely hanging onto his properties in Spain when he had brokered the marriage of his eldest daughter to Niko. Paloma had been young and naïve, but beautiful and determined to ‘save’ her family.
Niko, however, hadn’t given up his mistress while they’d been engaged. In fact, he’d kept seeing Evelina right up until the night before his wedding. He hadn’t seemed terribly concerned about birth control either, trusting Evelina’s attachment to her modeling career to keep her from getting pregnant.
Evelina had conceived Val with malice aforethought and turned up pregnant with her hand out as Paloma was testing positive with Javiero.
“You were setting me up for the same nightmare I grew up in,” he accused Scarlett when she was settled on the bed and the nurse had left them alone. “Were you going to wait until I was marriedbefore you told me I had a child on the way?”
“Your wedding wasn’t scheduled until next year,” she mumbled, throwing off the blanket and swinging her legs to the edge of the bed. “Niko asked me to wait until he’d passed before I told you. It was essentially a dying wish and he needed me there, running things while he declined. He knew you’d insist I leave if you found out. I knew he would be gone sooner than later so I did as he asked.” She tried to keep her gown from riding up while her foot searched blindly for a slipper.
“Where are you going?”
“I want my phone. Kiara is probably worried.”
“Screw Kiara.” But he fetched Scarlett’s handbag from the cupboard, waited while she rummaged in it, and returned it after she’d retrieved her phone.
She glanced at the screen and quickly dropped it to the mattress as her expression crumpled. She groaned with suffering, doubling forward over the ball of her belly.
Despite his foul mood, his heart lurched in alarm.
“Should I get the nurse?” He moved to open the door, prepared to yell the place down.
“She won’t do anything. I said I want to deliver naturally. She said this is normal,” she groaned, knuckles sticking out like broken teeth as she gripped the sheet beneath her.
This didn’t look very damned normal to him. He hovered in the doorway feeling uncharacteristically useless.
“Why the hell would you want to put up with that? Take something.”
After a moment, her tension dissipated. She released a pent-up breath with a few pants, but she was trembling and licking her dry lips.
“Kiara delivered naturally.” She rattled a paper cup and shook an ice chip into her mouth, holding it between her teeth as she spoke around it. “I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
Even so, her hands bracketed her belly as though trying to keep it from splitting while a keening noise emanated from her throat.
The pain that gripped her was so visceral, he felt it twist through him. He stood there in empathic torment, gripped by the tension of watching her expression flex in agony, waiting for it to ease. He didn’t breathe again until she did.
“I don’t understand how this is happening,” he muttered, referring to the entire event. Not in his wildest dreams had he seen this coming when he had climbed out of bed this morning.
She shot him an incredulous look and pushed her hair off her face. “You didn’t use protection. Not every time. You know you didn’t.”
Their last time.
Stay, he had ordered. Pleaded maybe. Either way, he hadn’t wanted her to go back to his father and she had worn a look just as conflicted as the one on her face right now.
Their final kiss had turned into something that had nearly pulled the soul from his body. She’d moved her clothing aside. He’d wound up thrusting into her against the wall of his entryway.
He’d been so shaken by the experience, he’d still been hot under the collar half a year later, loosening his tie as he overlooked the cat pen at his fiancée’s home, hoping the breeze would clear his head of Scarlett. The jaguar had leapt at his tie and dragged him into a fight for his life.
“I didn’t mean to sleep with you,” she said in a subdued voice. “Niko took a terrible when I got back. Things were very unsettled and I didn’t even think about repercussions until I was facing a positive test.”
He dragged his mind back from the brink of death to Scarlett on the edge of the bed. She looked incredibly fragile, as though she hugged a cushion against her middle, not his unborn child.
“Why did you come to me at all? You had to know I wasn’t interested in seeing him.”
Guilt creased her expression. “I knew Niko planned to leave everything to Aurelia. I was sworn not to tell anyone about her, but if you had come to the island, you would have met them and learned everything.”
“Seems a dirty trick on her. I thought she was your friend.”
“She is. And I only wanted to give you the chance to learn what he planned so you could make an informed decision about rejecting his money. My conscience demanded I do that much! What happened between us was completely unexpected.”
“It was unexpected?” he scoffed.
The sexual tension between them had simmered for years. He had ended a long-time relationship immediately after the first time he’d met her, convinced he would sleep with Scarlett by the end of that week. He’d been too proud to chase her, though, and she’d been tied too tightly to Niko to come to him more than once or twice a year. Each time she had left a wake of what-ifs until that last time when their chemistry had burst into flames.
Then she had still gone back to Niko.
“Ask yourself how you would be feeling right now if everything was going to Val’s daughter,” she challenged softly.
“I’d feel great.” But his mother would have had a stroke. Even so, “Don’t pretend you did me a favor, Scarlett. You’re as bad as he is, making choices for people that change lives.”
“I’m being punished for my poor judgment, trust me,” she choked. “Maybe if you’re lucky, I won’t survive and you can ride your high horse forever.”
“Too far,” he snarled, appalled she would think he wanted her to die. He wasn’t enjoying her suffering. He sure as hell didn’t want anything tragic to happen to her or his unborn child.
Her phone rang.
“Kiara,” she said as she answered with shaking hands. “I’m in labor, what do you think? How did you dothis?” That might have been an effort to make light, but her arm was trembling as though the phone was too heavy for her to hold to her ear. Her voice didn’t disguise her fretfulness as she added an urgent, “No, wait.”
She glanced at him, doubt and distress clouding her blue eyes along with a question.
“Javiero wants to stay with me.”
He did. He stepped closer without hesitation, as if he could physically oust anyone from trying to get between them. He wasn’t sure where that compulsion came from. So far this had been a hellish reunion for both of them and didn’t promise to get better, but this was exactly where he would stay until his baby was born.
Then he didn’t know what he would do.
He was close enough to hear the woman’s voice ask, “What do youwant?”
“I don’t know.” Scarlett rubbed at the crinkle of anguish between her brows. “I had to tell him everything. Now he thinks you shouldn’t be here. Because of Val.” She sounded bereft. Anxious and deeply vulnerable and was she crying?
Scarlett was tough as nails. She argued with reason, stuck to her guns, and kept her cool. That’s why he had always found her so infuriating. And compelling.
The sight of a tear leaking from the corner of her eye down her cheek snapped his roiling emotions into a new pattern, one that drew her firmly behind the shield of protectiveness he’d been wielding against her.
The flip of mindset happened so fast it made him dizzy, but one thought crystalized—whatever else was going on between them had to wait. Right now, Scarlett was in genuine distress.
He touched her bare knee to get her attention. She apprehensively met his gaze and he held it. He shoved all his anger and resentment into compartments behind his breastbone and deep in the back of his throat. He conveyed confidence he had no right to because he had no idea what they were in for, but here he was and here he would stay.
A fraction of her tension eased and her mouth trembled while the woman’s voice softened. He only caught the gist that Kiara was promising to book into a nearby hotel. She said that Scarlett should call her if she wanted her.
“Thank you,” Scarlett said in a quavering voice. “I’m a wreck and— Oh, here comes another one.”
He gently took the phone. “Breathe,” he suggested gently.
“I ambreathing.” She sounded petulant. Persecuted. “What do you know about it? Oh, my God, I hateyou for doing this to me.”
That stung, but he ended her call and set the phone aside. Then he stepped between her knees and took her weight as much as he could while she pinched his biceps in biting fists and pressed her forehead into his shoulder.
He rubbed her back, trying to ease the rigidity in her.
After a full minute, she slumped weakly against him. Her hands still clung to his sleeves and her head rested against his heartbeat. Her tears dampened the front of his shirt.
“We’re not going to fight anymore,” he promised as he continued to rub her back. “Not right now. Our baby won’t be born into a war zone the way I was.”
As far as Scarlett knew, Niko hadn’t been present for the birth of either of his sons. She hadn’t expected Javiero to be here for this. She probably should have drawn back when the pain passed, but she stayed leaning on him. It felt too good to be held by him.
“I’m scared,” she admitted. Terrified, more like. “I was Kiara’s birth coach and thought that meant I knew what to expect. I convinced myself it would be different for me. I would handle it better because I’ve had more practice at keeping a stiff upper lip. She’s kinder and softer in all the right ways, but I’m starting to think she’s the bravest, strongest person I’ve ever met.”
He kept up the soothing run of his hand up and down her back. It felt really nice, but as she allowed herself to remember Aurelia’s arrival, she knew it was only fair to let him off the hook. Witnessing a birth was pretty overwhelming.
“Kiara said she would come if I need her. You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to.”
“I want to.” His tone was firm and sure. He didn’t ask if she wanted him here.
She did. It didn’t make sense. Their relationship had been very stoic, if laden with undercurrents. Then it had been volatile and very intimate. Then radio silence while she’d been swimming in a miasma of mixed emotions for months. All of that had imploded in the last few hours, tearing her up while she headed inexorably toward this massive event that was taking over her body and her life.
In this very moment, however, they occupied a serene pool of affinity. She sniffed, not knowing how to handle his tenderness.
If anything happened… Well, she didn’t want to think of that. She was just glad he was willing to stay.
“I should have asked Kiara how it went with Val,” she murmured to distract herself.
A reflexive tightening in Javiero’s body rejected his half-brother’s name.
“Tell me what I can do to help. Do you like when I rub your back?”
He was changing the subject and maybe that was a good thing. She nodded against his chest. Her hair was pulling at her scalp and falling apart, but when she reached to pull out the pins, he gently set her arms around his ribcage and removed the pins himself, pausing when a pain arrived.
“Don’t be afraid of it,” he murmured. “That’s what I learned. Fighting pain makes it worse. When you accept it and let yourself feel it, you discover you can bear it.”
Easy to say, but she tried not to tense up or worry about anything beyond taking slow measured breaths as she waited for the contraction to subside. It helped a little.
“Okay?” he asked when she was breathing normally again.
She nodded and he resumed taking pins from her hair then combed his fingers through the strands, making a soothing noise as he massaged her scalp.
Time passed in a blur after that. She paced and had a shower and paced some more. She sat and knelt and stood and swore. She cried and said awful things to him about his libido and the patriarchy and that Niko’s money wasn’t even close to being worth what she was going through so how dare he accuse her of wanting a penny of it.
Javiero patiently endured her vitriol, repeating stupid platitudes the nurse had given him to say like, “You’re doing so good. I’m so proud of you. I’m here for you.”
“That’s a lie,” she said at one point, elbows on the edge of her bed, his palm making circles in her lower back. “No one has ever been here for me. Not when it counted. No one.”
Even Kiara had abandoned her—which wasn’t fair since she had told her to stay away. Maybe she had pushed Kiara away so she wouldn’t risk being disappointed by the one friend she truly cherished. She might have tested that friendship and picked up her phone right now, begged Kiara to come, but Kiara couldn’t do anything to help her. Not really.
No one could.
Which was pretty much the way her entire life had gone. Her parents and school teachers and social services had all let her down. She had always had to save herself along with everyone else. Maybe that had meant pledging undying allegiance to Niko—who had, at least, kept his promises. And if she hadn’t worked for him, she wouldn’t have met Javiero. Did he realize that?
Maybe he did and it was one more reason he reviled Niko.
Because he might be here now, but he wasn’t here for her. He was here for the child she carried. When it came down to it, she was utterly alone in this world. People surrounded her and acted like they cared, but she was the one who suffered and labored and pushed and cried.
Then even her baby left her.
For one long moment, she was weightless and numb and wondered if she even existed.
Then a warm, damp weight settled on her chest. He was tiny and flushed and so helpless she flooded with the need to shelter and comfort and nurture him. His eyes squinted open once before he clenched them shut and made an unhappy squawk that was laughable in the way his own noise seemed to surprise him.
It didn’t matter that he was one more person who would rely on her instead of the other way around. She was enraptured. Instantly, utterly, completely in love.
She lifted her gaze to Javiero’s gleaming eye and breathed, “Thank you.”