Cinderella’s Secret Baby
BOOK 1 in the Four Weddings and a Baby Quartet
The confession that stopped his billion-dollar wedding!
The scandal of the century…
She’s had the billionaire’s love child! Innocent waitress Amelia Lindor’s encounter with Hunter Waverly was unforgettable. Their chemistry? Off the charts! Their connection? Soul shattering! And, for Amelia, the consequences were life-changing…
Amelia had braced herself to tell Hunter she was pregnant, only to learn he was engaged. Unwilling to endure more heartache, she vowed to raise their daughter alone. Then the news gets out! In a shock turn of events, Hunter’s wholly convenient marriage is halted at the altar as all his attention turns to Amelia…and her secret!
USA TODAY bestselling author Dani Collins thrills in this secret baby romance.
Read all the Four Weddings and a Baby books:
Cinderella’s Secret Baby
BOOK 1 in the
Four Weddings and a Baby Quartet
“Why didn’t you tell me as soon as you found out you were pregnant?”
— Hunter, Cinderella's Secret Baby
When I pitched this concept, I knew it would have a wedding interrupted by the groom learning he has a baby by another woman. I knew the bride would then fall for the best man and the rest of the wedding party would find love.
As I was chatting it out with my editor, I said, “I could put a wedding in all four books and we could play on Four Weddings and a Funeral.”
Welcome to Four Weddings and a Baby!
In this first book, Hunter’s arranged marriage falls apart when Amelia’s father crashes the society wedding to reveal Hunter is a father. Hunter recognizes Amelia as the waitress he slept with once last summer–in fact, she’s been impossible to forget–but why did she wait until now to tell him?
I wanted to use a lot of Canadian settings so I staged the wedding in a vineyard at Niagara-on-the-Lake. They quickly return to Toronto, then are whisked to Banff for their honeymoon and settle in Hunter’s North Vancouver mansion. And of course there is the wonderful Cinderella aspect of Amelia being unprepared for Hunter’s lavish lifestyle. Don’t worry, she rises to the occasion while he rises to the responsibilities of fatherhood.
I love this pair. They’re strangers who are stuck in a tough situation, but they love their baby and are kind to one another. Amelia is cheeky and vulnerable and steely when she has to be. Hunter falls for her like a ton of bricks (even though he swore he wouldn’t!)
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Cinderella’s Secret Baby
AMELIA LINDOR COULDN’T fathom what had gotten into her father, Tobias. He had come straight back after leaving on his morning constitutional with a fire in his belly, insisting Amelia drive him from Goderich to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Right now.
IT WAS A three-hour trip that her daughter, Peyton, had not enjoyed. The two-month-old believed any car ride longer than twenty minutes was intolerable torture and made sure everyone knew it. After fussing on and off for two hours, she had finally settled into a hard nap.
The silence was a blessed relief, but it threw off the schedule Amelia had finally started to establish with her. Peyton was meant to be nursing by now. As Amelia parked and bent into the back seat of her dusty but trusty sedan, her breasts were already heavy and tight. Should she wake the baby and coax her to feed? Or risk a public letdown?
“How long will we be here?” Amelia asked her father, but only got a slammed door in response. She stood and called, “Dad?”
“I told you, I have to meet someone,” he grumbled over his shoulder as he hurried through the full parking lot toward the door of the winery’s tasting house.
“Who?” she said with exasperation.
He didn’t answer. Or wait. Tobias had arthritis and a heart weakened by grief, but seconds later he had heaved open the wide door and disappeared inside.
This didn’t make sense. When her father met someone, it was usually his fellow retirees from the salt mine. Six mornings a week, he rose to take his medication, record the temperature in his weather journal and listen to the early news. He left as soon as it was light, joining his buddies at the café two streets over where they nursed coffee and grudges against politicians and potholes.
This morning, one of his cronies had said something that sent him home to snap orders like the maintenance supervisor Tobias had once been. Let’s go. This can’t wait.
Since Amelia’s only plan for the day had been drop-in infant yoga, she had hurriedly dressed, and here they were.
Tobias had refused to talk in the car, so she had bounced through the music stations, trying to calm Peyton, remaining ignorant as to what this was all about.
Releasing an irked sigh, she carefully skimmed the limp Peyton into her arms. Since the seat weighed more than her baby did, she only threw a receiving blanket over her shoulder and cradled Peyton there, not even bothering with the diaper bag so she could hurry after her father.
A couple came out the door as Amelia approached, both dressed to the nines. The man wore a dapper suit; the woman was in a strapless amethyst gown. Bridesmaid. Who else dressed like that at eleven twenty in the morning? Was that why there had been purple and pearl balloons on the welcome sign?
The woman abruptly halted before crashing into Amelia. She offered a strained smile that suggested a supreme effort at politeness when she was barely holding on to her temper.
“Hello. Vienna. Sister of the groom.” She touched her bare upper chest, then gestured into the tasting room. “Go all the way through and out the back. You’ll see the pergola by the shore. Everyone is sitting down. We’re about to start.”
“I’m not here for a wedding.” Amelia grimaced an apology as she realized they were intruding on a ceremony. “My father is—” On a rampage of some sort. “Inside. Looking for someone.”
“Oh?” Vienna cocked her head. “Who? We’ve reserved the entire place for the wedding. I might know them.”
“I’m not sure, but we’ll get out of your hair right away. I promise.” Amelia turned her friendly smile up to the man still holding the door. Cool, conditioned air beckoned from inside. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure,” he said in the very creepy tone some men used when they thought they were being charming by sexually harassing a woman. His gaze slid down to ogle the stretched neckline of her T-shirt. The pink cotton was straining across her nursing bra, but one breast was squashed by her newborn baby so, Don’t be gross, man, Amelia thought crossly.
Behind her, Vienna was saying an impatient, “Okay, Neal. What’s so important you had to drag me out here when it’s about to start?”
The door closed behind her, and Amelia blinked in the shadowed interior, turning over the name Vienna in her mind. It was unusual, but she had heard it somewhere, which caused a prickle of premonition.
At the same time, the sounds and smells of the tasting room were provoking a flashback. Last summer, Amelia had taken a job at a microbrewery not far from here. On her off days, she and her workmates had toured the local wineries on their bicycles, getting tipsy inside tasting rooms like this one with its brick floor and post-and-beam ceiling. This was a bigger vineyard, so the tasting room had two bars, one on either side. Behind each were rows and rows of bottles, while the space between was full of shelves displaying knickknacks and branded tea towels and specialty wineglasses.
Amelia automatically blocked the other memories that tried to invade from last July. The ones containing a brooding man who had kissed her in the moonlight and warned her against coming to his room.
My life is a mess right now. It won’t be more than tonight.
She shifted the weight of that encounter to her other shoulder as she searched for Tobias. He wasn’t among the guests scrambling for a glass of wine before they headed out the doors to the ceremony. Had he gone to the lawn? Was he meeting one of the wedding guests?
“Grandma. There’s one more. Would you like to sign the guest book?” An adorable girl of eight or nine reopened the book she had closed. She stood behind an upended barrel near the door and wore a demure version of the bridesmaid’s dress. Her hair was gathered up in a bundle of tight black curls on her crown, and she wore a hint of soft pink makeup on her lips and cheeks. She had clearly been given this Very Special Job and was taking it very seriously.
An older woman wearing a stylish royal blue dress gave the girl an indulgent look before saying to Amelia, “Welcome. Friend of the bride or groom?”
“I’m not here for the wedding.” That ought to be obvious from her very casual clothes. Her stomach was starting to sour at how ill-timed her father’s mission was. “Did you see an older man come through? He’s wearing a yellow shirt and brown pants. He has a bushy gray beard?”
“I think so.” The little girl’s face screwed up quizzically and she looked to her grandmother. “He didn’t sign, either.”
“He said he had an important message for the groom. I sent him to the guesthouse.” The older woman pointed down a hall where a glass door led to a covered walkway. “The groomsmen were gathering for a sip of courage in the breakfast room.” She winked. “Would you excuse us? Hannah and I need to take our seats.”
“Of course. Thank you.” Amelia turned to start down the hall, but her gaze was snagged by the chalkboard behind the bar.
The stark black slate was adorned with a border of silk orchids in purple and white. Calligraphed letters read Congratulations Hunter and Eden.
Amelia’s heart jolted to a stop, then slammed into a panicked gallop.
No. No, Dad. No.
“I’ve always presumed I would get married at my aunt’s vineyard,” Hunter Waverly’s fiancée had said when their engagement became official. “Weddings are their specialty. She’ll pull out all the stops for me.”
Hunter had gone along because a groom didn’t override his bride when she set her heart on an outdoor wedding at a vineyard on a lake. Holding the ceremony here had been one less decision. Simple, if not ideal.
By anyone’s standards, everything about this wedding was perfect. Bright June sunshine beamed from a cloudless sky. There was a soft breeze coming off the water, just enough to keep Hunter from overheating in his suit as he walked out to the pergola. If any of the typical day of disasters had occurred behind the scenes, solutions had been found before Hunter heard a whisper of it.
The guests were taking their seats, the bride was said to be ready, and the officiant was motioning to the string trio to wrap up their current piece.
It was unfolding flawlessly, but Hunter was tense enough to snap in half.
PTSD, he thought dourly. For most of his life, every special occasion had turned into an embarrassing disaster. He had been tempted to insist on a small ceremony with Eden, but that would have been cowardly.
The officiant checked in with his best man. Remy nodded, patting his lapel, smile tight. Something had been eating at him for months. Hunter noticed it at the engagement party, but Remy didn’t want to talk about it and Hunter had lived with so little privacy in his own life, he didn’t invade others’.
Through the amplifier that would allow the guests to hear their vows, he heard Eden’s voice ask, “Is it working?” Her tone was a fraction higher than normal.
Wedding jitters. A bride was entitled, and Hunter refused to catch a case of it. This marriage was advantageous for both of them.
Eden had inherited controlling interest in Bellamy Home & Garden last year. Its stock value had languished in recent years, but it was a trusted Canadian icon, especially in rural communities. Eden would right the ship once she had Waverly cash at her disposal. The fact that their marriage merger included a plan to use Bellamy as a road map to bring Wave-Com’s next generation of wireless technology into all those remote locations wouldn’t hurt, either.
For his part, Hunter was repairing the Waverly reputation by attaching himself to the Bellamy name. Wave-Com had suffered in the years after his father died, plagued by ugly legal fights and a takeover attempt as his stepmother had sought to steal the corporation from her husband’s children, throwing mud every chance she got.
Today would turn the page on those perpetual scandals. With this sophisticated wedding, brimming with homegrown celebrities and dynasties from abroad, Hunter was setting a tone of respectability, family values and stability. Dare he add, class? Because Eden was intelligent, cultured and accomplished. She was well known for her philanthropy and admired for her Canadian-made fashion choices. Her grandfather had been a beloved voice on the national radio waves, and her mother still contributed weekly gardening tips to one of their programs.
Eden was suitable in other ways, too. Vienna had introduced them, implicitly promising that family gatherings would always be pleasant and civilized. Eden wanted babies right away, and Vienna was ready to start her family, too. Their children would grow up together.
Best of all, Hunter found Eden attractive, but not too attractive. They would have a foundation of friendship and respect, not fickle love or treacherous lust. Hunter wouldn’t be tugged around by his fly the way his father had been, subjected to spectacles every other week while making excuses for the source of his humiliation.
This marriage was exactly the right thing for all concerned.
Yet his gut was full of gravel, and he couldn’t shake this sense of impending doom.
It was the location. As Hunter breathed the scent of newly mown grass and heard the ducks on the lake and the buzz of bees, more prurient memories were accosting him. A musical laugh and a soft shoulder under his lips. Fine hair that carried a fragrance of sunshine.
That one night had been an escape, he often reminded himself. In some ways, it had been a narrow escape, because the heat in his blood had nearly made him say rash, embarrassing things. Don’t go in to work. I’ll stay another night. For sex.
Stop it. What kind of groom awaited his bride with a one-night stand clouding his thoughts?
Maybe it was the natural reckoning of a wedding day. He was saying goodbye to freedom and flings as he committed the rest of his life—his sex life—to one person. That heaviness in his gut wasn’t misgiving. Or regret. It wasn’t.
The music faded to expectant silence. The murmuring crowd quieted.
The officiant covered her lapel microphone with her hand and asked, “Ready?”
Hunter drew the device from the pocket of his coat and turned it on, noting the green light. He nodded and brushed his jacket straight again. He looked over the guests. There were roughly two hundred arranged on either side of the carpeted aisle, all smiling with anticipation.
The first notes of their wedding playlist were plucked from the harp. He looked to the top of the stairs from the terrace where his cousin’s tot of three years appeared in a flouncy dress. A bridesmaid of fourteen, one of Eden’s cousins, kept a firm hold of the little one’s hand and used the other to hold the rail as they began to descend.
The gravelly bellow cut through the sublime moment, creating a stillness that silenced the angelic notes and the rustling leaves on the nearby rows of vines. Even the lap of water on the shore seemed to hold its breath.
Then a higher, feminine, anguished voice broke in.
“Daddy, no. Please.”
IT WAS THE sort of wedding Amelia’s blue-collar roots could only dream of.
As she glanced from the walkway, she saw pots of gardenias and begonias stationed at the ends of rows of white chairs. The posts and slatted roof of a pergola were draped in wisteria. The backdrop was a stunning view of the lake and a hazy glimpse of Toronto’s skyline, like a tiny floating island, sat on the horizon.
To the right of the pergola, there was an arched walking bridge over a trickling creek, perfect for photos of the bride and groom before they made their way to the pavilion filled with rustic tables set with linen and china and sparkling crystal.
It was fairy-tale-perfect, and her father was ruining it.
Amelia swerved off the walkway to intercept Tobias as he came out of the guesthouse and charged toward the pergola. Everyone swiveled their attention to her, making her feel extra clumsy as she kept a firm hold on Peyton while trying not to trip on the grass.
Oh, God, look at him. Hunter Waverly was so blindingly handsome in his morning suit, clean-shaven and tall with his wide shoulders and his stern, narrow face, he made her eyes sting. From the concrete pad of the pergola, he was even taller and looked down his bladelike nose at Tobias before shifting his gaze to Amelia as she rushed up behind her father.
Hunter stood in dappled shade, but she thought he jolted as he recognized her.
She felt naked then. And small. Smaller even than when she’d left his guest room last year. Her face was blistered by that old humiliation and this new one. Her heart was cracking down the center, falling open to pulse unprotected because her baby was exposed. Here. In front of hundreds of eyes where their very different positions in life were even more pronounced than they had been then.
Hunter had bought out a vineyard for his bride. He had only offered her what was in his wallet.
“You,” her father said again, voice dripping with contempt. He avoided Amelia’s attempt to catch his arm. “You ignore your own flesh and blood, leave the mother of your child to fend for herself while you…” His impatient hand waved with disdain at the guests, the tranquil setting and the loving union that was about to be blessed.
“Daddy, please. I am begging you.” Amelia managed to catch a fistful of his sleeve and tugged. “Come on. We’re leaving. I am so sorry.”
The kindly grandmother was staring at Amelia as though she was a skunk that had waddled into the kitchen. Amelia couldn’t make herself look at anyone else, especially Hunter. Her stomach had risen to churn in the back of her throat.
“She’s better off without you.” Her father shook off her grip. “But your friends and family ought to know what sort of man you are. Your wife should know what she’s marrying. And I’ll be damned if you won’t even feed and clothe the child you made.” Her father shook his finger at Hunter. “Judging by this, you can afford to, so quit being a bum.”
“Dad!” she cried. “He didn’t know. Okay? I never told him.” And if she didn’t have the helpless bundle of Peyton snuggled in her arm, she would wish herself dead right now. She really would.
Someone in the crowd guffawed a curse of enjoyment.
Her father snapped a look at her. “A man has a right to know, Amelia.”
“I have a right to decide what happens to my baby.” She was furious with him.
“I care what happens to my baby,” he barked straight back.
He did. She knew that. He was a dear, loving father, but such a dinosaur sometimes. Old-school and old-fashioned and so protective after losing Jasper, but how did he even know Hunter’s name? How had he known Hunter would be here?
“Is it true?” Hunter’s voice was deep and tight and sounded like it came out through clenched teeth even as it boomed from a speaker off to her left.
With an appalled snarl, he ripped the wire from his lapel and pulled something from his pocket, handing it to the man beside him.
“Is it?” he demanded of her without the bullhorn effect.
“Of course not,” she lied blatantly. “This is all a horrible misunderstanding. I’m very sorry for the interruption,” she added to the crowd. Her face was about to combust, it was boiling so ferociously in embarrassment. Her head was dizzy. She could hardly see straight.
“You just said you didn’t tell me. That I didn’t know,” Hunter pointed out with subdued outrage.
Take the free pass, you idiot.
“Hunter.” The man beside him—Remy, Amelia recalled—nudged Hunter.
Hunter lifted his gaze over Amelia’s head.
Amelia looked over her shoulder and up.
The bride had come to the rail of the terrace. She was red-carpet-gorgeous with midnight-black hair and luminous golden shoulders accentuated by the stark whiteness of her strapless satin gown. Her veil caught the sunlight so it created an angel’s halo effect around her astonished yet beautiful face.
Could this moment get any worse?
Hell, yes, Peyton assured her. She began to stir and whimper, rubbing her face into Amelia’s neck, rooting for the nipple she wanted.
Amelia’s full breasts were ready. So ready.
No. Please no.
But the tightness in her heavy breasts became a hard sting. A rush of tears rose to her eyes as letdown happened. Damp warmth began soaking into the pads of her bra, leaking around the edges to stain her shirt.
Mortified, Amelia spun and started back to the walkway.
Behind her, she heard something drop like a shoe.
She glanced back to see that the bride’s bouquet, a spray of ivory rosebuds interspersed with baby’s breath and lacy fronds of spring ferns, had landed on the grass.
Hunter wished he were a stranger to outrageous public displays.
Sadly, this pageantry was all too familiar. His sister was equally familiar. With a sharp nod from the terrace, Vienna assured him she would stay with Eden and followed his bride back into the honeymoon suite.
Through the speakers, Eden’s voice cried, “Is it true?”
With a squeeze of his arm, Remy also conveyed, I’ve got this. He cut a sharp line across his throat, indicating to the wedding planner that the microphone feeds should be cut.
Hunter left the pergola and brushed past the older man still working his mouth in search of further words to berate him.
As he went after the woman who may or may not be holding his baby, Hunter’s mind raced. No fully formed thoughts seemed to stick. That wasn’t like him. He knew how to grasp hold of catastrophe and mitigate it. He’d been doing it since his eleventh birthday party, the first occasion his stepmother had ruined with her obscene behavior and the last time he had celebrated that annual milestone.
Get things back on course, he kept thinking, but his “course” was marriage. To Eden. He couldn’t let that be derailed by a woman he had fooled around with once. Okay, three times. It had been a very active night, but it had only been sex. Not conception. Surely not.
“The woman with the baby,” he snapped at one of the servers in the tasting room even as he looked to the exit to the parking lot. “Did she leave?”
“She asked for somewhere to sit and—”
Hunter stopped listening and followed the pointed finger around the corner, stalking through a closed door labeled Operations Manager.
“Excuse me.” Amelia glared from the love seat crammed beneath the window.
Her face was bright red. The dark roots of her hair were so long, only the fraying bun on the top of her head was still blond. She looked a lot younger without the makeup she’d worn when he’d met her. Her brows were pulled into a knot of affliction, her wide mouth pinched.
“Get out,” she said more insistently.
While nothing was on show, she was clearly uncomfortable as she cradled the nursing baby against one breast and held a pink blanket against the other.
Hunter swore, but he’d seen a baby nurse before, and this was more important.
“Is it true?” he demanded.
He rolled his eyes and turned to face the closed door, stepping forward to lock it.
“I’ll insist on a test either way, but I don’t have time for games. There’s a woman next door who deserves to know.” He deserved to know.
Amelia muttered something and said, “Ouch. Yes, I know.” She seemed to be talking to the baby because there was a cry of protest then, “There. All better.” She sighed.
Silence resumed, broken by loud gulps.
As he warily turned back to face her, Hunter was doing some quick and dirty math, trying to work out if this was even possible. Nine months from July would take the birth to April.
Amelia had draped the blanket over her shoulder, and the baby was now hidden beneath the tent. One bare foot was kicking out from beneath it, working an invisible pump. Amelia kept her glower aimed at his shoes.
“How old is…?” He? She? Check that gender bias, he reminded himself. A child. Could he have made this baby?
“Nine weeks. Almost ten,” Amelia admitted sullenly.
Hunter swore again, using a clear, all-purpose curse that encompassed the act that had brought him to this point and the complexity of his reaction. It spanned everything from resignation to disgrace. Irony to self-disgust. Anger to injustice. Remorse.
And, flittering around the edges, a nascent curiosity coupled with a small resentment that she had hidden the baby for months. From his eyes right now.
“I didn’t mean for this to happen,” she mumbled. “Any of this.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before today?”
“I tried.” Her voice grew tougher. Belligerent. “I called your office, trying to reach you. You texted back that you were engaged. You told me not to text again.”
“That’s not trying. For God’s sake, Amelia. I wanted to hear that. Why did you wait… What? Five months after we were together?” He had been engaged by then. “Why didn’t you tell me as soon as you found out you were pregnant?”
He snorted, never quite believing those I didn’t know I was pregnant urban legends.
Her lashes finally came up. Her lake-blue eyes were pools of sorrow.
“Do you remember I left that morning because Dad got the news my brother had disappeared? That’s all I could think about. Finding him. When the company quit trying, I decided to go to Chile myself. I needed shots to travel, and the doctor had to screen me for pregnancy before he could administer them. I thought stress was making me sick and stopping my periods. I wasn’t doing anything except sitting at a computer, writing emails, so the weight gain didn’t seem unusual. We used condoms,” she reminded, waving between them. “It didn’t occur to me I could be pregnant.”
He always used condoms and didn’t recall one breaking. It seemed far-fetched that she could have gotten pregnant by him, but he was having trouble hanging on to his skepticism in the face of how upset she seemed.
“I wanted to have her, even though it meant I couldn’t travel.” She rubbed her brow, mouth pulled down at the corners with deep sadness. “It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made, but I knew Jasper would never expect me to give up a baby to go look for him, especially if…”
The catch of torment in her voice struck Hunter straight in the chest, rocking him back on his heels. He tried to imagine making a decision between his unborn child and looking for his sister. His mind refused to go there. The idea of it, the fact that Amelia had chosen to keep his baby rather than search for someone she loved, caused a visceral shift inside his chest, one that hurt in a way he didn’t understand.
He brushed aside trying to untangle that emotive knot, focusing instead on the word “her.” Such a tiny detail, but now he knew that little foot belonged to a girl. His daughter?
“I thought I should tell you, but you blew me off,” Amelia said in lifeless tone. “Given all I was going through, it seemed like a blessing that you didn’t want to be involved. One less person to worry about.”
You didn’t ask me if I wanted to be involved, he nearly growled, but she was obviously still in deep pain, so he bit that back.
“And your brother?” he probed carefully.
Hunter rubbed the cynicism from his expression. “I’m sorry, Amelia. That’s rough.”
“It is. Dad was in pieces. I moved back into his house, we pulled up the drawbridge, and we’ve been looking after each other ever since. Peyton’s been a bright spot, though.” One side of her mouth went up a little as she caught the bare foot that was still working thin air. “Dad’s been more like his old self since she arrived.”
Peyton. He had a daughter named Peyton. It didn’t seem real.
“And maybe we don’t live like you do, but we’re fine,” she insisted. “He shouldn’t have made it sound like we’re starving. Dad has a pension, and the house is paid for. I get maternity benefits that I supplement by tutoring. I’m finishing my Bachelor of Ed online. In a year or so, I’ll be a teacher. That’s a perfectly good living for a single mom.”
“But you let your father believe I don’t care if you’re starving and destitute.” That rankled. A lot.
“I don’t even know how he found out your name! I didn’t tell anyone. Not even Cheryl— You remember her? She’s the one Remy—”
“I remember,” Hunter dismissed, vaguely recalling a bubbly redhead.
“I haven’t really talked to her since I left,” Amelia continued in a distracted mumble, lashes lifting warily. “I don’t post about Peyton. No one knows you’re her father.”
Yeah. Not even me.
“But Dad got after me to make a will the minute she was born, especially since Jasper didn’t have one. I finalized it a couple weeks ago. Maybe he read the copy I left in the freezer? I only mentioned you as a last resort. My cousin agreed to raise her if something happens. She lives in Ottawa, but she and Dad would work something out.”
“I’m a last resort for custody of my child? Wow.” Very few things got under his skin. Hunter had been exposed to every possible slight at one time or another. He was jaded and impervious, but that was a kick in the stomach. “What about her birth certificate? Is my name on that?”
“No.” Her reply was prompt and remorseless. “I would have needed your permission, so it didn’t make sense to add you. Can you turn around again? She’s finished and I need to put myself back together.”
He turned his back and absorbed everything she’d said, but kept coming back to that phrase, “last resort.” He’d been tangled up in a legal mess for the last few years, but did that make him so objectionable a person she didn’t want him to have anything to do with his own child? He was gainfully employed and didn’t have a criminal record. He was about to marry—
He swore and pinched the bridge of his nose.
What the hell was he supposed to do? Parts of the merger might be salvaged if he called off the wedding, if Eden could stand to speak to the man who jilted her. She didn’t deserve this humiliation any more than he did.
“I need a paternity test,” he muttered, grasping at the off chance this was a stunt organized by his stepmother, but he knew. Deep down, he already knew the truth.
“I’ll agree to that, but I don’t expect anything from you. If you want access, we can talk about it, but please don’t feel obligated.”
“Of course I’m obligated, Amelia. Do you know who I am?” He pivoted around again to see her shirt was down and she held the baby against the blanket on her shoulder.
Peyton’s fine brown hair was thin on top and turned up in feathery ducktails around the fringe, like a balding old man on a hot summer’s day. In response to Amelia’s pats, she released a robust burp.
Amelia was glaring at him with resentment.
“Please don’t accuse me of getting pregnant for money. If that’s what I wanted, I would have come after you a lot sooner.”
“I’ve already deduced that.” Everything she was saying added up to preferring to keep this baby from him. Which made him furious. And uncomfortable.
“Please don’t sue me to try to take her.” She tucked her chin, brows low with warning.
“Is that why you didn’t tell me? You think I would try to separate my baby from her parent? I’m not like that, Amelia,” he said pointedly.
Her scowl deepened. “I’m not going to apologize. You are in love with someone else, Hunter. About to be married. I did what I thought was right.”
“By whom? Not our daughter,” he scoffed. “My life comes with a lot of comfort and privilege. Your father is right. My child deserves to benefit from what I can give her.”
“Her needs are met,” she insisted. “She’s chubby and happy and sleeps in a dry diaper under a sound roof every night. I love her to death. So does my dad. She wants for nothing.”
“Except the father who wants to be part of her life. Were you really going to wait until she was old enough to ask about me before you sprang her on me?”
“I refuse to feel guilty over the choices I’ve made! You told me not to text you.”
He brushed that aside. “If she’s a Waverly, she’s entitled to live like one.” That much he knew.
“Fine. Organize a paternity test. Make whatever arrangements you want for her. For her,” she stressed. “I need to live with Dad and look after him.” She inched to the edge of the love seat. “And, um, don’t think this is me being a jerk or anything, but I plan to talk to a lawyer and find out my rights. She’s still nursing. I genuinely think it’s better if she’s with me full time. I’m open to something more balanced after she weans. I want to be reasonable.”
“Nice to know,” he said facetiously. “But nothing about this is reasonable. It’s outrageous.”
She sighed. “You’re right that I should have told you sooner,” she admitted grudgingly. “I’m sorry it happened like this. I’ll get Dad and we’ll leave and—”
“And what? The damage is done,” he snapped.
“To the wedding? Why? This isn’t your fault. You didn’t know.” She blinked incredibly naive blue eyes.
“I know now. Everyone does.” The press was going to have a field day. The clock in his head was warning that he was losing his chance to get ahead of this. The feeding frenzy had likely already started. Despite his best security precautions, there had been several boats on the water. He would bet at least a few guests or staff were already texting or posting. This was a situation ripe for one of those real-time threads that went viral.
The groom’s sidepiece just showed up. Her dad brought his proverbial shotgun.
Hunter slapped a hand to his lapel, double-checking he hadn’t been on a hot mic this entire time.
What would be said about this relationship? Nothing flattering. Amelia wasn’t the sharp-witted, confident woman he’d met last summer, the one with straightened blond hair, cat’s-eye liner and long tanned legs beneath a saucy skort.
She’d become a disheveled and distressed new mother. Her complexion was wan, and she had dark circles under her eyes—standard for new parents from what he’d heard, but it made her look extra vulnerable, and that faded T-shirt and her bargain yoga pants screamed neglect on his part.
She looked hellish, really, but there was still a clench inside him that he was fighting to ignore. Want. The baby weight made her curvier, which he found intriguing. The huskiness of emotion in her voice kept calling up the sensation of her soft cries spilling against his ear. From the second she had appeared, some animalistic part of him had growled with satisfaction at being near her again.
No. She had just turned his life into a mile-long train wreck. This woman was dangerous. She was everything he didn’t want.
“What?” Amelia’s gaze grew apprehensive as she realized he was staring at her. She pressed back into the love seat, cradling the baby closer.
A knock at the door had him snarling, “Busy.”
“It’s me,” Vi said.
Amelia sucked in a worried breath, perhaps expecting Eden, but he swung around to let his sister in.
“Eden needs to know what’s going on.” She looked at Amelia with curiosity. “The B-Team is assembled online when you’re ready.”
Hunter would have given up his firstborn to never hear those words again, he thought with dark irony, but he was grateful Vi had put their PR bomb squad on standby.
The clock had run out. Decisions had to be made.
He squeezed Vi’s arm and left.