Proof of Their Sin
A beautiful mistake
Pregnant. Lauren Bradley’s heart stops—there’s only one man who can be the father and it’s not her late husband, the man everyone thinks is a celebrated war hero….
Ravaged with guilt at sleeping with his best friend’s wife, Paolo Donatelli closed his heart to Lauren forever. But in nine months’ time, the proof of their incredible night together will be there for the world to see.
"That's the widowed Mrs. Bradley. Off-limits. To everyone." Especially himself.
— Paolo, Proof Of Their Sin
Proof Of Their Sin was my first book to get full distribution, meaning it came out in North America and I was able to visit it, sign copies, and take selfies with it. You know, normal stuff that everyone does, don’t they?
Proof Of Their Sin is also my first award winner. It won 2013’s Reviewers Choice for Best First In Series from RT Book Reviews. The attached picture shows me picking up the award in New Orleans with my daughter in attendance.
I was so thrilled that Paolo and Lauren received this attention. I adore their story—the angst of pining for each other for years. Paolo’s need to contain his high-octane personality. Lauren learning to step out of her shell. It was my first book on contract, which put enormous pressure on me, but I recall thinking about the midway point that I couldn’t believe I was being paid to do this. (I still can’t believe it. Best job ever. For reals.)
If you want to see more of Lauren and Paolo, they make a brief appearance in A Debt Paid In Passion, then a more integral role in Bought By Her Italian Boss, which features Paolo’s cousin, Vittorio. (And then Vittorio turns up in a book that is with my editor as I write this, so it is untitled, but features Travis and Imogen.)
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Proof of Their Sin
Not for the first time in the last several weeks, Lauren Bradley wondered where the line was drawn between becoming the bold, independent woman she’d always wished she could be and behaving like a shameless, demanding radical. Words like licentious, brazen and embarrassment trickled through her mind with increasing frequency as she walked that blurry border.
Unsurprisingly, when those hurtful words echoed in her head, they were always pronounced in her mother’s thin, distressed voice.
Flicking one long, brunette braid over her shoulder, Lauren silently told her mother to pipe down while she regarded the woman behind the counter of this exclusive hotel salon. The woman had just given Lauren the most excruciatingly polite brush off and habits of a lifetime urged Lauren to slink away in quiet disgrace.
But her heart was beating for two these days, knocking hard against the wall of her breastbone and bouncing back on a spine that had to harden to contain it.
Dare I? she wondered with a shiver of apprehension.
Oh, she knew she appeared to be just one more hick tourist come to New York looking for a posh hairstyle to take home as a souvenir, but this was so much more than that. Lauren stood on the threshold of taking control of her life in a way she’d never imagined, but to do so meant shoving past the old Lauren who always smilingly took a back seat to everyone. If she didn’t dig deep and find her true spirit right now she might as well collect her luggage from upstairs and retreat to the empty rooms of her grandmother’s mansion where she could raise her baby with all the fear of drawing attention its mother had suffered most of her life.
No. Lauren locked her knee, surreptitiously putting her foot down.
Then allowed the salon receptionist to finish the call she’d used to try to dismiss her. Ingrained manners were a pain that way. Besides, Lauren needed the extra seconds to gather her courage and manufacture a gracious smile for the woman who gave her a strained Still here? smile as she hung up.
“I believe there’s been a miscommunication,” Lauren said with the most warmly modulated yet implacable tone she could muster. “I’m attending the Donatelli Charity Ball this evening.”
The woman, a little younger than Lauren’s nearly twenty-five, widened her eyelash extensions with a fraction of respect. Exactly. Paolo Donatelli was a man who made every woman stand taller and suck in her stomach.
A zing of empowerment swept through Lauren. She was name dropping, sure, but she’d never before had the gall to try it. Over her mother’s gasp of horror, she heard her grandmother say, Good girl! Clenching her fingers on the strap of her carry-all purse, Lauren added daringly, “You’re certain you have nothing for Bradley? Mrs. Ryan Bradley?”
Her mother would have a stroke over such audacity, but Lauren stood her ground, pronouncing the name with delicate precision because, honestly, what was the use in being Mrs. Bradley if she shrank from all it afforded her?
“Mrs. Bradley…” The salon hostess searched her book while her plucked brows came together in concern. “It sounds familiar—”
A stiletto thin man appeared from behind the privacy wall of translucent bricks. Groomed to perfection right down to his buffed fingernails, he greeted Lauren with the warmth of an old friend, even though she’d never seen him before in her life.
“Mrs. Bradley, of course we have time for you. So good to see you out during what must be a very difficult time. May I express on behalf of myself, my staff, and in fact our entire country, how sincerely sorry we are for your loss. Captain Bradley was a true hero. If there is anything we can do to ease your pain and make up for his sacrifice, we are at your service.”
Now Lauren did feel like the most conscienceless snake oil salesman in the world, allowing the man to sweep her into the interior of the salon, minions scampering before him to remove traces of previous clients.
Guilt rose to tense her shoulders, but there was still time to go back. All she had to do was turn and leave. People would stare though.
She swallowed and allowed confident hands to seat her. The elastic hoops were peeled off her two thick braids and then her new BFF was fanning his hands through her hair, picking up the strands that fell to her waist.
“This is your natural color, isn’t it? What a treasure. Your husband must have adored this mane.”
Lauren had thought he had adored her. Don’t ever cut it. Promise me, he’d said a thousand times. Everyone in her life had encouraged her to keep her hair long and Lauren, always the good girl, had complied.
“You’re not going to hide it by putting it up? What are you wearing tonight?” He weighed the kinked strands.
“I have a vintage Lanvin-Castillo. And no, I don’t want my hair up. I want you to cut it. Off.” New life. New Lauren.
He sucked in a gasp, meeting her gaze in the mirror with disbelief that slowly dawned into awe. “My dear, if I were straight, I would ask you to marry me.”
Lauren smiled as if men fell for her all the time, which was the furthest thing from the truth. “Sir, if I was the least bit interested in marrying again, I’d say yes.”
Three hours later, Enrique was the best friend Lauren had never had. He insisted on coming to her room with one of the stylists from his salon where they helped her dress and put finishing touches on her hair, nails, and make-up.
“I cannot wait to tell people I dressed Frances Hammond’s grand-daughter. Look at you! It’s like it was made for you.”
Considering it was the last dress made for her grandmother and that she’d also been three months pregnant at the time, it didn’t surprise Lauren that it fit so well. The boned bodice that flattened her tender breasts was severely uncomfortable, but it did wonders for her usually modest bosom. She hid her wince and stepped into the matching satin heels. They weren’t as tall as current fashion dictated, but they were stitched to match the amethyst embroidery on the white silk of the dress and positively adorable.
Enrique carefully draped the dark violet stole over her bare shoulders, shaking his head with wonder. “Look at this detailing. What a time to be alive.” He set familiar hands on her hips, taking in the pink and blue pastes studding the elaborate chenille and floss that ended at her waistline. He didn’t seem to notice she was disguising a pregnancy behind the structure of the dress.
Good. The whole purpose of this exercise was to let the father of her baby know about his child’s existence before the rest of the world found out.
As Lauren absorbed the reality that she would be seeing Paolo again, a flood of excitement sent a subtle rush of heat and color under her skin. She saw it happen in the full-length mirror as she turned for a final look. It made her squirm internally with chagrin that she couldn’t stop the reaction. Always, always she reacted to that man and it was so wrong. Her thoughts of him almost tipped into memories of their night in Charleston and the sting in her cheeks ached with shame.
She tried forcing herself back into the cone of denial she’d occupied since the Morning After, but it was tighter than this dress. The lovemaking shouldn’t have happened, but it had. There were consequences. She had to face them.
Which meant facing Paolo.
To combat her reaction at the prospect of seeing him, she took a hard look at her appearance. Where her grandmother had been blond elegance, Lauren was dark with elfin features accentuated by her new hair.
What would Paolo think? Of the hair and the news?
She never knew what to expect from him. The first time she’d met him, at a bar here in New York five years ago, he’d been warm and admiring. The second time, at her wedding to Ryan half a year later, things had gone so wrong it had been nothing but chilly brush offs after that. She’d been convinced he hated her and, after his nasty set-down at Ryan’s thirtieth birthday party, she had returned his antipathy. When Ryan had disappeared three months ago, however, she’d made one despairing call from Charleston and Paolo had materialized before her. He’d revealed an incredibly tender side when he’d broken the news about Ryan with sincere regret, so protective of her he had whisked her to the privacy of his nearby penthouse.
Where he had made love to her with unexpected and abject passion.
So would he regard this baby as exciting and wonderful? Or would he be the iceman about it? Would he blame her? Or see her as something he wanted?
Oh God, was that what she was doing? Trying to make herself into something that could fit into his world? Suddenly she saw herself as she was: a rube playing dress up, sidling out of her element with the intention of taking life by storm without possessing the capacity to actually do it. Her confidence plunged.
“Don’t look so terrified,” Enrique scolded. “You have every reason to hold your head high.”
Lauren couldn’t think of one person who would agree. Not her mother, certainly not her mother-in-law. Paolo hadn’t said a word to her since. That didn’t bode well.
Her stomach rolled with anxious fear and she automatically lifted a protective hand to her abdomen.
Enrique’s gaze followed.
Too revealing. She was falling apart.
“I haven’t eaten,” she excused, which was true. The baby deserved better. She ought to take off this costume and stay here for a proper meal and an early night.
“They’ll have a buffet at the ball, but will this tide you over?” Enrique’s assistant offered a candy from a roll of them.
Lauren stared with bemusement at that particular candy appearing before her at this particular instance. With a tremulous smile, she took one. As the O-shape and scorched caramel flavor landed on her tongue, Mamie’s spirit came into the room.
Do it, chere. Take a chance. Live your life.
Lauren’s flagging confidence took a deep breath and rallied. She couldn’t let Mamie down.
She secured the antique earrings weighing her lobes then adjusted her grandmother’s diamonds across her collarbone and, with all the terrified dignity of Marie Antoinette approaching the guillotine, made her way to the Grand Ballroom.
Paolo Donatelli surveyed the charity benefit his mother had begun hosting on an annual basis when his father had still been alive. Whichever country they happened to occupy in December became the location of a White Tie Ball complete with full orchestra, champagne fountains, and a midnight supper. The Donatellis could then retreat to Italy for a family Christmas confident they’d done their duty by the local economy, their position in society, and the cause-du-jour.
His mother rarely left home in winter these days, but Paolo strove to do her credit by continuing the tradition abroad. In his hypercritical opinion, he’d pulled off one of the most successful events to date. If there was a flaw, it was the lack of a proper wife to hostess, not that anyone would dare say so. If his cousin Vittorio had an opinion on the subject, he wisely kept it to himself. And Paolo was working on repairing that deficiency. Isabella Nutini was his companion tonight and she was nothing if not proper.
He nodded an acknowledgment when Isabella excused herself to the powder room, thinking she could easily repair more than one blemish in his life. She was Italian, not one of these mixed-breed Americans as his first wife had been. Isabella had been raised Catholic so treated marriage with the respect it deserved. She seemed to have a grasp on concepts like loyalty and duty to family—something he saw in very few people these days, man or woman.
Best of all, aside from the requisite level of physical attraction and a modicum of intellectual interest, he felt little for her. He was a man of very deep emotions and controlling them was daily struggle. Best to have a wife who wouldn’t put him through an emotional wringer. As long as she provided him the children he required and did not shame him before his family, Isabella was ideal.
“Your date left you and now so will I,” Vittorio said with cheerful insolence. “Excuse me, cousin, while I seduce my future wife.”
Italian heritage and male curiosity demanded Paolo catch a glimpse of the female that had drawn another man’s interest. He turned his head and—
A pendulum of suppressed sexual need that he’d pushed far into his subconscious swung through him and exploded, nearly bringing him to his knees in a rush of heat and primitive hunger. Paolo slapped his hand onto the ruffled front of Vittorio’s shirt, freezing him in place. Iron congealed in his arm while his gaze swept like a raptor, ensuring no one else dared approach her before he locked onto her again and took in the vision of her.
She’d gained back a few pounds, but her cheekbones still stood out under eyes that were wide and overwhelmed as she searched the crowd. Despite her height, she projected an intrinsic vulnerability that struck him the way it had when he’d entered the house of Ryan Bradley’s family in Charleston. His protective instincts rose like hackles, but she wasn’t nearly as helpless as she appeared. Lauren Bradley knew how to take care of herself. Like most women, she turned on the damsel in distress act to get what she wanted.
Ryan has disappeared, Paolo. No one will tell me anything. Please help me.
She had known how to get right at his heart, plucking at his deep allegiance to his friend despite playing them off each other for years. With one phone message, she’d invited him onto an emotional rollercoaster that had taken him weeks to recover from. A man in his position couldn’t afford inner turmoil. She ought to understand and respect that, but she was too self-involved.
Dio, she was beautiful, though. He vaguely took in a dress of white silk swirled with pearlescent design. A slash of dark purple was tangled over creamy shoulders and pale arms, but his gaze ate up the other details: the swell of her pale breasts. The hourglass shape nipped at the waist and flared to wide hips that had cradled his like they’d been made to lock together the way they had. Her neck had been a slender arch under his rapacious mouth, her ears so sensitive his breath on them had made her quiver. And those lips, those plump, edible lips had roamed his chest and abdomen and—
“Are you forgetting you brought a date, Paolo?” Vittorio’s voice held the same amused mockery Paolo had heard all too often from family after his marriage had fallen apart. How could you not have suspected it wasn’t yours?
Lauren Bradley had the ability to make him miss certain things and overlook the rest. Shame rose to burn his cheeks, mixed with embarrassment and anger. She’d seduced him into another dishonorable position and he would never forgive her for it.
“That’s Mrs. Bradley. Off-limits. To everyone,” he ground out, finally dropping the hand that had warded off his cousin. “Scusa,” he added from between clenched teeth, loathe to approach her, but what choice did he have?
Vittorio flicked him a speculative glance. Paolo ignored it, admitting to nothing. Everyone had wanted to know what had happened when he had stolen Lauren from the Bradley household and taken her to his penthouse on top of the Donatelli Bank Tower in Charleston.
Nothing, he’d lied.
He never lied, especially to family. Lauren had brought him to this level of disgrace and had the nerve to turn up at the grandest event his family sponsored. To gloat? To push him a few rungs lower than he already stood in his own estimation? Where did she find the audacity to dress like royalty and parade herself into public barely three months into mourning a man regarded by this nation as a saint?
Her searching gaze found him, causing an unwanted zing of electric excitement to pierce him. Instantly he was transported to the darkened bedroom and the rumpled bed. He felt again the ever-expanding brush of skin on skin as they struggled to peel away each other’s clothing, neither willing to break the kiss or stop touching the other. His blood heated and a weighted sensation tugged in his groin. Everything he’d suppressed and forced himself to forget rushed back with renewed power, exalting him with a conqueror’s strength and spirit even as it sickened him to want her like this.
While on her side, her plumped breasts rose as she caught and held her breath. Her shiny lips parted. She was a precocious little Bambi, wide-eyed and pinned by what looked like apprehension, so damned defenseless looking, but it was an act. A trick to trip him up and bring him to heel. She wanted something and he wouldn’t like it, that he was sure of.
They moved toward each other like drifting flotsam pushed by a tide then halted. He was able to see the subtle things now. The uncertainty trembling in her thick lashes, the way she forced her chin up because facing him wasn’t easy. Good. She ought to be burning in self-hatred the way he had been doing since betraying his personal code and his closest friend.
She lifted a hand in a way he’d surreptitiously watched her do a hundred times, but there was no tendril to tuck behind her ear. Dio, he should have noticed it first, not last.
“What the hell have you done to your hair?” he growled.
Lauren self-consciously touched the fine wisps Enrique had left against her neck, habitually about to apologize for daring to think she had the right to cut her own hair.
Fortunately, she was too dazzled by the sight of Paolo to speak at all. He was not a man who needed a white tuxedo to impress, but the one he wore added elegance and power to an already gorgeous man. His hair was on the darker side of brown, thick and threatening to curl. His olive skin held the remnants of a warm, summer tan. Beneath it, his face was carved in lines of supreme masculine grace, handsome without being pretty, strong to the point of ruggedness, but polished to urbane sophistication. He’d mastered aloof detachment but had every ounce of the seductively expressive eyes of his heritage.
Those eyes had been flipping her heart since the first time she’d seen them watching her from across that upscale bar five years ago, but he was Italian. He did that to women. It wasn’t personal.
Even though there had been something deeply personal between them for a few hours in his penthouse. She could feel the same magnetic draw he had exerted on her while he slept and fought not to shiver under the memory of giving in to that pull, pretending it was a dream to justify losing herself in her long repressed physical desire for this man.
As if he read the direction of her thoughts, he sharply averted his gaze then brought a cold glare back to rake it down her dress. She knew it to be flawless yet still sensed she was criticized and found wanting.
Was that her own baggage of insecurity or a genuinely harsh judgment on his part? After all, she was a grieving widow. What business did she have wearing something pretty, in snow white of all colors, showing up at his extravagant party?
Wrenching nausea, the kind that had nothing to do with physical illness and everything to do with anguished emotions, clenched in her stomach. She’d had months to sort through it all. She’d owned up to her part in this conception. Paolo only needed to be informed because it was the right thing to do. She hadn’t come here looking for love and devotion even if a tiny part of her had hoped…
He held her in contempt, though. She could see it. Like everyone else, he believed Ryan Bradley had been beyond reproach. Everything she did, every action she took, should be an honor to her fallen hero of a husband. What Lauren wanted or needed didn’t matter. She certainly shouldn’t look at other men. Sleeping with them was a crime worthy of a Scarlet A. And if that man happened to be her husband’s best friend? Well, that put her somewhere lower than a garden slug.
Which was a judgment she might have accepted if she had been the one incapable of fidelity, but Ryan was the adulterer, not her. That was the other reason she’d allowed herself to make advances on Paolo that night. Her marriage had been over months before Paolo confirmed Ryan’s death and made it official.
With a dignity she’d found somewhere between hating herself and feeling grateful to this man for the baby in her womb, she left off touching her hair, clutched her pocketbook to hide her nervous trembling, and said with a hint of challenge, “You look very nice, too. Thank you.”
His gaze slammed back to hers, sharp with disbelief at her subtle criticism of his manners.
Holding that hostile stare was hard, but she wasn’t as timid as she used to be. At least, she was trying not to be.
A light of reassessment altered his expression and she felt as though the charged air between them ramped up several notches.
With a lift of one brow that seemed to say, Is that how we’re playing? he offered his arm. “I didn’t see your name on the guest list. What a pleasant surprise to have you turn up anyway.”
By that she understood she was hideously unwanted here. It was almost enough to make her run barefoot back to Montreal.
“I’m making a point of doing a lot of things I barely dreamt of before,” she retorted lightly.
Avoiding the flash of warning in his gaze that asked, before what? she set a tentative hand on an arm that felt as hard as banded steel.
“Travelling alone, trying new styles…” She would have gone on, but touching him again made heat coil through her.
This arm had held her in a dozen ways three months ago. Protective across her shoulders. Comforting behind her lower back. Soothing when it tightened across her stomach and drew her into his spooned strength. Resistant across her chest when he’d tried to refuse her sexual invitation, then vital and possessive when he’d draped her thigh over his forearm, making her his.
Physical need, stronger than any she’d experienced in her life, made her falter, tightening her hand on his sleeve, leaving her weak and quivering and fighting to hide it. They’d only taken two steps and she couldn’t prevent herself from swaying against him as she fought to regain control of herself.
His arm turned to marble beneath her touch and he glared down at her. Everything in him gathered with rejection like she was a leper.
“May I?” A man with a camera stepped before them.
Lauren froze in a kind of preternatural fear while Paolo condensed into a statue of impatient tolerance, willing to put up with her closeness out of duty.
Appearances, she thought. Heavens yes, we can’t let down appearances.
Rather than smiling at the camera, she lifted her bitter gaze to Paolo’s, seeing yet one more person in a sea of them who hid authentic feelings behind a façade. How disappointing to find out he was like all the rest.
Incredulity flickered in his dark brown eyes. And challenge. He didn’t like being found wanting. Not at all. As their stare held, heat crept into his gaze, burning with knowledge. Intimate, sexual knowledge. He picked her apart and left her in pieces as the camera flashed, momentarily blinding her to Paolo’s final rebuff of all she offered.
“Beautiful,” the cameraman murmured, reviewing the camera’s screen.
“Grazie,” Paolo dismissed and drew her away. “Champagne?”
“After I’ve eaten,” she demurred, searching for a private corner where she could get this over with and disappear. Seeing him was far, far harder than she’d expected. He’d been incredibly remote the next morning as the press release was read. She’d been frozen herself, just trying to get through the days until the funeral. The Bradleys had closed ranks, creating a buffer that kept Paolo from approaching. At least, that’s what Lauren had thought at the time, when she’d spared a thought beyond her inward twisting of anguish, grief, and guilt. She’d been grateful not to speak to Paolo after the shameless way she’d behaved.
Now, however, everything was different. Or was it? She was still dying inside at her brazen behavior. Part of her was second guessing her decision to come here. She’d been a fool to imagine there’d been any emotion on his side that night. Obviously it had been nothing more than an exercise in physical gratification. He wasn’t showing any enthusiasm for seeing her. This was the same man who’d frozen her out most of the times she’d seen him. Best to cut to the chase and leave.
“Actually, I’m not here to wine and dine, Paolo. I need to speak to you. I tried to book an appointment through your assistant.”
He kept a bored look on his face while people around them cast curious glances their way. “With the death of your husband, cara, I thought my ties to you were finally severed and we’d never speak again.” Nice. He really did despise her to the core.
Because of Charleston? Or did it go back to her wedding day?
She had never understood Paolo except to liken him to Ryan: driven by his ego and masculine desires, slaying women without even trying because females eagerly set themselves up for the little death such potent men promised.
And delivered. She almost had to shut her eyes to beat back the memory of how beautifully Paolo delivered.
She reminded herself she was one of many women who wished they knew him better, but honestly, she’d had so few occasions to try. He’d bought her a drink in a bar despite being engaged to another woman then sat back while his friend pursued her. He’d kissed her with unexpected passion at her wedding reception then snubbed her when Lauren tried to speak to him a few years later at Ryan’s birthday.
In Charleston he’d been solicitous and tender, then ardent and insatiable.
Then cold. Sub-Arctic cold.
She hadn’t exactly been impressed with herself at that point, making love to her husband’s best friend the night before his death was announced, so she ought to face his hostility without feeling as though a chisel was being hammered directly into her heart, but his enmity hurt. He didn’t have to be madly in love with her, but he did owe her a few minutes to tell him they had a tie between them that could never be severed.
A woman in midnight blue chose that moment to join them, forcing Paolo to drag his gaze with visible annoyance from trying to penetrate Lauren’s to the inquiring face of a woman with unmistakable Italian coloring.
“Isabella,” Paolo said in a tense tone. He slid a possessive arm around her and brushed her cheekbone with his lips, provoking a surprised widening of her eyes. “May I introduce Mrs. Ryan Bradley? An old friend.”
His tone was dismissive, emphasizing ‘old’. Former. A possession of his friend.
Isabella was twenty if she was a day and Lauren felt ancient before her. She was acutely aware of her status as a widow. A cynical and jaded one.
Nevertheless, she managed a courteous, “Call me Lauren, please. Since no one else seems to.” She cast that at both Paolo and the world, accompanying the request with an offering of her hand.
It trembled. She hadn’t let herself think of Paolo with a woman in his life. Seeing him touch Isabella made sharp talons rip into her from the souls of her feet right up to the base of her throat. Of course he had women in his life. They all did.
Isabella cast a look between them, trying to read what may have happened during the infamous disappearance of Ryan Bradley’s wife into the rarely used penthouse of his close friend the night before Captain Bradley’s death was revealed.
Paolo maintained a stoic expression. Nothing, his flat gaze said.
Lauren had perfected the same poker face and baldly showed it to Isabella.
While remaining burningly conscious that her waistline would soon reveal their big, fat lie.
“I can only stay a few minutes,” Lauren excused, thinking that must sound bizarre considering she’d obviously spent as many hours on her appearance as every other woman here. “Would you be very offended if I claimed a dance? I only wished to say hello to Paolo as I was passing through New York. He’s been so kind.” She choked a little on the adjective.
Had it been pity that had prompted him to make love to her? The thought had been lashing her like a whip since he’d given in with a shudder and a curse. Her hand longed to go to her waistline in an attempt to protect her developing baby from such a pitiable start.
“Of course,” Isabella said magnanimously. “And please accept my sincere condolences.”
Appearances again. It seemed Lauren was just as guilty as the rest of the world. Sickly guilty, if she let herself dwell on it, which she tried not to. She woke in a cold sweat too often, worrying her husband’s death was her fault. He hadn’t been happy about her request for a divorce. Had it made him extra reckless when foiling those terrorists?
Pressing the suspicion to the back of her mind, she accepted the condolences for the sake of Ryan’s family, squeezed Isabella’s hand with appreciation and avoided the delving look Paolo turned on her. Ten minutes, she swore to herself. Then she could wrestle herself out of this dress and all the other confines of her life. She would be a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, able to fly into places she’d never dreamed when she’d been a lowly silkworm tied by emotional threads to her grandmother’s estate of maple trees.
“Why here then?” Paolo asked as he steered her toward the dance floor, his tone growling with disapproval. “If you only wanted a few minutes of my time?”
“I—” She had to pull herself together as he set confident hands on her, leading her into a waltz. It had been years since she’d taken the lessons, imagining dancing with Ryan in Vienna when she joined him there, but the trip had never materialized. Nothing truly exciting had ever happened to her.
Except discovering she was pregnant with this man’s baby.
Lauren faltered, searching her memory for the steps and searching for a clear thought in the haze that closed in with Paolo’s disconcerting presence.
Wide shoulders filled her vision. His clean-shaven jaw tempted her lips to lift and taste. He’d been stubbled and masculine and hot, so unquenchably, passionately hot. Demanding when he took control. Skilled and confident and ravenous. Like a wild animal let out of his cage, running her to ground and feasting on her.
Her breath shortened and sexual heat suffused her, making her quiver, filling her nostrils with his familiar scent. It had only been the one night. How could she know his dark, espresso scent so well she could find him blindfolded in this heavily perfumed crowd?
“You’re making a fool of yourself,” he muttered.
The words sliced through her, withering a very sensitive nerve. She knew she lacked experience and sophistication. Why else had her husband cheated on her? Paolo didn’t need to rub it in, though.
Lauren flashed him a livid glance from eyes that burned, but he wasn’t looking at her. He wasn’t aware she was melting under his touch.
“Be a merry widow for your next husband,” he said scathingly. “Ryan deserves better.”
Ryan had lived a double life.
“He had his mail delivered to his mother’s,” she said, shying at the last moment from shattering Ryan’s precious image. He was dead and he’d died with honor even if he hadn’t entirely lived so. “The invitation was forwarded in a packet they sent to me.”
It had been post-marked the day Ryan had gone missing. The engraved envelope was one she’d seen annually and always wound up throwing away because her husband had never been home to take her.
“Initially it only meant that you’d be in New York. I wanted an appointment to see you in your office, but your schedule was booked and my grandmother’s closet is full of dresses like this. When else would I wear one?”
Pride had made her do this. Pride and a perverse desire to thumb her nose at expectations and propriety. Frances Hammond had come home pregnant with her head held high. Lauren Bradley intended to leave the same way.
She lifted her chin, daring him to take that away from her.
Nothing. Not one iota of reaction. Only a disinterested, “Why did you want to see me?”
The moment of truth. She waited until he’d spun her so her back was to the majority of the crowd, making lip-reading from across the room less likely. “I needed to tell you that I’m…” She found the Italian word she’d looked up special. “Incinta.”
If the language switch caused him any confusion, he didn’t show it. In fact, he showed little reaction at all, beyond one contemptuous glance down his nose.
“Congratulations. Whose is it?”
Lauren had prepared herself for many reactions: anger, blame, suspicion that she was trying to trap him, even disbelief in the context that this could have happened to a pair of otherwise responsible adults. She had not imagined a denial of any involvement whatsoever.
Behind her burn of outrage raced a trail of humiliation. Did he really imagine she’d taken other lovers besides him and her husband? Well, why not, based on the way she’d made love with him like she was starved for it? Her throat clogged and mortified pressure built behind her cheeks.
She stumbled out of sync with the music, forcing him to pull her a fraction closer to steady her. He was an iron cage around her, supporting her while trapping her in this farce of a dance.
She moved as though swimming in molasses, a bug caught in sap, soon to be immortalized in amber. Lightheadedness combined with the spin of the dance to make the room swirl around her while her stomach turned over. Whatever blood had been circulating through her drained into her toes leaving her chilled to the core.
Somehow she reached through the miasma of shock to locate contempt for a man who dared to denigrate her when he’d been in that bed exactly as long as she had.
“You never struck me as lacking intelligence, Paolo.” Her voice was soft yet layered with frost, frigid as a Canadian winter. “You deserved to know so I told you. Have a nice life.”
She pushed away from him, head high, tears thick in her throat.
No, Paolo thought. It was the only sound in ears pulsing with his boiling blood. Ryan’s? Another man’s? His?
No, no, no. He was not stupid enough to fall for that again. His ex had pulled this same trick for a direct line to his fortune, complete with another man’s baby conveniently conceived at an appropriate time to make it plausible. He’d unquestioningly done what was right for his child and the payback had been six months of melodrama, scheming, and bitterness that kept his heart hard to this day.
He had vowed not to let any woman tear him to pieces again, but as Lauren left him on the dance floor, he felt like an actor who’d been abandoned on stage, the spotlight hot and white upon him, props gone, lines forgotten. He’d felt the same way after their night together, when she’d disappeared into the clutch of grieving Bradleys, leaving him to cope alone.
Despite his exceptional reflexes and honed instincts, he didn’t know how to react to something so unexpected and threatening to his carefully structured life. Especially when lust was clouding his vision and frying his mind. Dancing with her had been as erotic as making love to her.
Then it struck him. She hadn’t said it was his, only that he deserved to know. Because the perception would be that it was his.
A string of violent Italian curses fed through his psyche as he strode after her. To his irritation and disgust, Vittorio stopped her before either of them had wound very far through the crowd.
“I must confess, I didn’t recognize you from your photos,” Paolo heard as he came upon them. “I’m Paolo’s cousin, Vittorio. I knew your husband. I’m deeply sorry for your loss.”
Paolo couldn’t stop the territorial slide of his hand beneath the drape of Lauren’s silk wrap, fingers splaying over lithe back muscles that stiffened at his touch.
The tumultuous instinct to guard her, own her, while his brain reminded him she was the enemy, tangled his thoughts, making him say harshly to Vittorio, “She’s leaving.”
“So soon?” Vittorio was enjoying himself, aware something was afoot and determined to have a piece of it.
“I only wished to put in a brief appearance,” Lauren said with surprising solemnity. “Given this event benefits cardiac research. My grandmother had a heart condition so I wanted to show my support.”
The unexpected revelation set Paolo back on his heels. He was instantly sure the records would show a very generous donation next to her name and even though a string of zeros often meant nothing to people in a crowd of this financial rank, the catch in her voice underlined her sincerity. Her devotion to her grandmother had always been something he respected about her.
While the phrase ‘had’ a heart condition pinged inside his skull. The old woman was gone? He unconsciously gentled his touch, offering a caress of comfort.
Lauren shifted her weight, subtly removing herself from contact with Paolo’s fingertips, the only sign she was aware of him while she continued speaking to Vittorio.
“She passed away earlier this year.” She controlled the hitch in her voice. “The loss was overshadowed by other events, but it does make a night like this quite difficult. I hope you’ll understand and excuse me?”
“Of course,” Vittorio said with a gallant bow before stepping aside.
Paolo slid his arm more securely around Lauren’s waist and tightened it, pinning her to his side before she could sweep herself away.
She flung him a look that lashed like a bolt of lightening, gilding him in an exciting sensation of pleasure-pain. It was completely at odds with the fading spirit and demure manners she’d been projecting seconds ago. No one else saw it, but he tasted the slap of challenge and the hot blood it left in the corner of his mouth.
Everything about this woman provoked a visceral reaction in him and Paolo had to temper a grin of exhilaration. If she wanted a fight, she’d come to the right place.
But she was pregnant, he reminded himself, fighting an impulse to grip her with hard, controlling hands the way he would anything that fought his will: a racecar, a powerboat, a fighter jet. At the same time, he thought, pregnant, and knew he should lift his red-hot palm right off her.
Despite knowing he should never have touched her, he kept her in place with a flex of his superior strength. Whether she was actually naming him the father or warning him of the perception, he was facing a firing squad. Perhaps he owned some of the responsibility for that. He’d brought her into his home and made love to her. It had been foolhardy and wrong, but it had been the first time in five years that other spouses had not stood in the way. In his weakened state, he’d let long-suppressed desire overtake him.
It should have been a bittersweet aberration tucked away and forgotten, but she had decided to bring an infant in a basket to his doorstep. Having the baby turn out to be his was the only way he could forgive her for doing this, but he simply couldn’t let himself believe that she was telling the truth. Other motives were too quick to present themselves: his fortune, for starters.
They needed to talk.
“Play host while I escort Mrs. Bradley to her room,” Paolo said without looking at Vittorio, perversely pleased with the flush that poured into Lauren’s cheeks and the way her burgeoning breasts heaved against the line of her dress.
“That isn’t necessary,” she said through her teeth.
“Si, cara, it is. Very much so.”
Lauren refused to speak to him as he accompanied her to the elevator. Part of it was stubborn fury, the rest complete intimidation. She was catwalk height like her grandmother, five-ten plus more in heels. Somehow Paolo’s looming six-three had never penetrated, probably because she’d rarely stood this close to him.
Threat radiated off him. Not physical threat, but the impression that he was on the prowl to crush her in some way and was merciless enough to do a fine job of it.
“So?” he demanded when the elevator doors enclosed them. “Whose is it?”
She dragged her gaze from his magnetic reflection and looked scathingly up at the man himself, mortified to acknowledge that desire still gripped her. It had always been there of course, sublimated, rejected, and ignored. That’s why she’d so rarely stood near him or held a real conversation with him. That’s why, after trying to speak to him at Ryan’s thirtieth birthday and receiving nothing but disparagement, she’d told herself she hated him.
She had convinced herself she would never see him again, but three months ago she’d had nowhere else to turn. At best she’d hoped for a civil phone call that might or might not have shed light on Ryan’s disappearance.
Twenty-four hours after the pleading message she’d left on his voicemail, however, he had walked into the Bradley’s cold, silent mansion like an avenging angel, eyes only for her. It was the last thing she had expected and inexplicably, despite all the turmoil around her, her inner freeze had thawed into a flood of warmth and relief. Her heart had begun to beat again.
Let me take you out of here, cara. He’d been like a mug of cappuccino, all coffee tones in a fawn leather jacket over dark chocolate pants. His jaw had been sprinkled with a sexy, overnight stubble and his brown eyes had been liquid with empathy and sorrow.
She’d gone with him because she had trusted him. The painfully awkward interactions in the past had fallen away and they’d been two people in the same crisis willing to cling to each other to survive it. She hadn’t gone to his penthouse because she was sexually attracted to him. She hadn’t wanted—
Well, that wasn’t true. She had always wanted on some level. Involuntarily.
She dropped her defiant gaze from his, swallowing back embarrassment over the way she hadn’t stopped herself reaching for him in the dark.
Forget it, she commanded herself, trying to ignore the clamor in her that said, I don’t want to forget. It was over. If he’d had a weak moment of randiness then it was her good fortune. She had the baby she’d longed for. Every time she thought of the life growing in her, her heart expanded to fill her chest with the sweetest ache. All she was really concerned with now was proceeding with life as a mother.
“It’s yours, Paolo,” she said in a husky voice aimed at his shoes, then realized she was doing it again, hanging her head like she had something to be ashamed of. Jerking her chin up, she set her jaw and braced herself against the feeling of teetering like a plate on a stick. “I don’t care whether you believe me,” she declared.
“Good,” he said as the car floated to a halt and the doors opened. “Because I don’t.”
She choked on offended fury. She cared. Of course she cared. This was their baby. All the maternal instincts she’d kept in stasis for years rushed forward to stand up for their child.
“How dare you call me a liar over something so important?” She made no move to exit the elevator.
He put out a hand to hold the doors, his scornful gaze flaying her into sandwich meat. “I’ve been down this road. How could you think I’d take your word for it?”
She didn’t know much about his marriage, only what Ryan had told her: that his ex-wife had plotted with her lover to con Paolo into child support payments. The plan had backfired when he had insisted on marriage. He had unraveled the subterfuge right before Lauren’s own wedding and the marks of being taken advantage of had been carved into his brutally handsome features while he stood next to Ryan at the altar. Ryan later admitted that just before the ceremony, Paolo had tried to talk Ryan out of marrying her.
Then, grim and cynical, Paolo had barely been civil at the wedding reception, leaving a strong impression he blamed Lauren for timing the event to happen as his own marriage dissolved.
She didn’t own a crystal ball. She couldn’t have known. She had felt awful and tried to apologize. Frozen in the elevator, she unwillingly relived how he’d told her to leave him alone and she hadn’t listened, reaching out instead to try to comfort him. He had brushed her off, started to turn away, then had spun back and pulled her into him like a lifeline.
He had opened her right up for the passionate kiss he’d drawn from her with seductive ease. She’d forgotten everything, most especially that she was newly married. Nothing had come back to her until Paolo had drawn back to murmur something against her lips and Ryan’s voice had interrupted at the same time. Then Paolo’s gaze had turned cold and vindictive. Women were fickle and treacherous and easy, he’d implied with a rake of his gaze down her wedding gown as she had moved to her husband’s side.
After behaving like that, she should have seen that he would lump her in with the woman who’d turned him into such a cynic about female honesty. Lauren put out a hand to steady herself against the cold mirror, biting back a protest that she was different. She had no way to prove it though. Not when she’d been the one to initiate the lovemaking in Charleston.
How obtuse was she that she hadn’t seen this coming? But she’d known she was above women who played foul so it had never occurred to her he’d accuse her of such a thing. Lauren had never been a flirt, or a strategist, or a manipulator. Paolo saw her through his tainted glasses, however, and it made her feel dirty.
Why did she care, though? She’d been prepared to raise this baby alone from the moment she had suspected she was pregnant. She had come to New York convinced she didn’t need or want his support on any level.
While a hidden part of her had basked in the chance to draw a little of Paolo’s attention one more time.
Even though his regard had always scared her a little. Like a possum under a suddenly bright light, she’d always skittered away or curled into herself or into the nearest shadow—preferably those cast by larger than life people like Ryan. But she had thought, right up until Paolo’s first caustic remark tonight, and especially after his tenderness in Charleston, that he felt at least a little warmth toward her.
His expression held nothing but cynicism and contempt, however, as he waited for her to absorb his rejection of her claim.
She hid her devastation behind a proud posture, keeping her back arrow straight as she finally preceded him from the elevator, faltering when she realized this wasn’t her floor but a private suite. “What—”
“We need to talk,” he said, stabbing security buttons beside the elevator panel. “In private and uninterrupted.”
“Are you out of your mind? Dragging me to your room is what started this!” Despite her apprehension, an irrepressible jolt of anticipation hit low in her belly. The unwanted receptiveness to his advances made her feel intensely vulnerable. For another long second, she couldn’t move, couldn’t look at him.
“Throwing Charleston in my face right now is a mistake, I assure you,” he said dangerously. “How far along are you?”
She set a tender hand on her waist, breathless with alarm. She was locked in a situation she should have been smart enough to avoid while sensual memories wouldn’t shake from her scattered mind. And she felt weak. It occurred to her how badly she had neglected this baby today, too preoccupied with facing Paolo to take care of herself and the growing life inside her.
“You can do the math,” she murmured.
“Three months since we were together, but I can see the weight gain starting. Is that why you slept with me? To disguise some married man’s bastard?”
“Oh, stop it!” she spat. “Have I asked you to be a father?” After losing her own and suffering Gerald as a substitute, she’d concluded that father figures were overrated. Her grandmother had filled all the necessary parental roles just fine thanks.
Wanting to finish with him before her delicate hold over her control slipped completely, she paced into the lounge, bypassing the narrow aisle between the sofa and coffee table for the wider band of area rug behind the furniture. As she spun, her skirt billowed in a way her lungs couldn’t. She was aware of his scrutiny like a scientist behind a mirrored wall, watching a distressed animal seek escape from its cage.
“Yes, people are going to notice soon that I’m pregnant,” she stated, trying to drag deeper breaths into her compressed lungs. “They’re going to speculate that it’s yours. I owed it to you to prepare you for that so here I am.”
“So you’re keeping it.” The words were flat and uninflected.
It was an unexpected blow that winded her.
“Of course I’m keeping it! I’ve waited years for a baby.” She tried to say it calmly, but she couldn’t help the residual fury over Ryan’s duplicity, letting her try to explain to his mother why they weren’t conceiving when he had privately known exactly why. “How can you suggest I not keep it? You’re Catholic. And don’t you dare ask if I slept with you to get pregnant. I’ll slap you, I swear I will. I thought I was infertile.”
She spun again, still pacing, feeling like one of those little metal ducks quacking her way along the upper ledge of a carnival tent. Paolo’s laser gaze seemed to track her like the red dot of a sniper’s rifle while he weighed her words.
“I know this baby looks like a disaster, but it’s a miracle.” Her agitation at having to explain without being able to explain kept her blood vessels tight, her muscles tense, her focus dim and narrow on the walls rushing by.
“I’m willing to minimize the damage by leaving the country, but it’s going to come out, Paolo.” She’d managed to ignore her anxiety over that eventuality, but it threatened to overwhelm her as she spoke of it. Her feet moved quicker and she felt the walls closing in. Her mother’s shame and disappointment, Ryan’s mother’s horrified incomprehension… It would be a nightmare and Lauren didn’t even have her grandmother to stand by her.
What she wanted, what she’d come here for, was rescue, she realized. Deep down, she had hoped for the same help and support he’d offered in Charleston.
She wasn’t going to get it though. She really was alone in this.
Eyes stinging at how inexorable it all was, Lauren made herself halt, growing aware that she was gasping breaths in, but was forgetting to let them out. A clammy sweat condensed on her skin and her vision faded to white. She was hyperventilating and even though she tried to make herself stop, panic at not tasting any oxygen stole her self control, making her try harder to catch her breath.
Paolo said her name in a sharp tone. She blindly looked to where she thought he was, but she couldn’t see him. Her hearing was muffled as though her ears were filling with water. She moved her lips, trying to tell him, trying…
Paolo had never seen anyone crumple like that and it stopped his heart. Somehow he kept her from hitting the floor, catching her in his arms while his knees took the brunt of the marble beneath the thin rug. Gathering up miles of silken fabric with a slender, limp shape inside, he pushed to his feet, heart pounding with dread as he deposited her on the sofa.
Her color was ghastly. All he could think was that she was miscarrying when she’d just called her baby a miracle. He had an inkling how devastating that sort of loss could be and couldn’t stomach it happening to her.
Razor wire coiled in his chest, squeezing mercilessly as he fumbled his mobile from his pocket and tried with trembling hands to locate the number of the pediatric heart specialist sipping champagne in the Grand Ballroom.
Lauren’s lashes fluttered before he found it. Her dazed eyes blinked open and something warm and lovely shone up at him before confusion clouded in. She automatically tried to sit up, but fell back quickly. Her breaths sounded like anxious gasps, frightening him.
“I can’t breathe.” She reached for her back. “Open my dress.”
“What?” Dio, he could kill her he was so terrified. Clattering his mobile onto the coffee table he rolled her into the sofa back and used both hands to release the tiny hook and eye closures down her back. There were a million of them and his fingers were big and clumsy. “I was trying to call a doctor. Are you in pain?”
He overrode her with a string of curses as the panels of her dress peeled open to reveal silken cord tied punishingly across her pale back. As he hurried to release the strings, he exposed a pattern of thin welts criss-crossing her satiny skin. “What in hell! The laces have nearly cut through to your ribs.”
“It’s not that bad, is it? It doesn’t hurt.” She ran light fingers over the indents while her ribcage expanded and her body relaxed into softer lines. “I’m fine,” she dismissed on a long, easy sigh. “It was just a little tight.”
“A little?” Appalled, he traced each mark, ensuring they were superficial enough to fade.
Her spine made a subtle arch under his touch. Goose bumps rose across her flexing shoulder blades. Her reaction was so immediate and honest it sent a sexual zing through him, enticing him to slow his stroking into a deliberate caress. He recalled that her skin tasted exactly as smooth and creamy as it looked. The desire to bend and press kisses to her neck and shoulder until she moaned with need nearly overtook him.
He forced himself to stand so he couldn’t touch her, mind reeling at how close a call that was. His body was shaking and his blood sizzling. “Why would you wear something so dangerous?” he charged.
“Dangerous?” she repeated with a gurgle of humor. She rolled onto her back, hugging the loose front of the dress to breasts that remained invitingly plump against the amethyst edging. “Since when are gowns deadly?”
Her smile invited him to join her in laughing at absurdity. Part of him wanted to let it happen. When she forgot to be shy, she was quite animated and fun.
And sensual. Her eyes grew languorous as she gazed up at him. Her color was flowing back in a warm glow.
“Shoes are regular serial killers, but dresses are harmless,” she teased.
He couldn’t help the twitch of humor at the corner of his mouth. “I’ve seen dresses short enough to take a man down. Whiplash is a common occurrence.”
Her smile grew. “I nearly died of embarrassment in a bathing suit once. True story.”
“I would say nothing is safe, but that’s probably riskiest of all.”
He’d taken it too far, his voice lowering to an intimate tone as he pictured her naked. The irrepressible attraction between them rose like a ring of spitting fire, urging him to move closer to her. It took everything in him not to lower onto her and do exactly what he’d done the last time he’d been alone with her. They’d been completely naked, nothing between them, nothing.
And it had been so wrong.
He curled his hands into fists, refusing to let himself absorb the implications. “This isn’t funny, Lauren. None of this is the least bit funny.”
Her mouth flinched in startled hurt at his return to recrimination. She threw her arm over her eyes to block him out and started to say, “I know, I’m s—” but flattened her lips to stop herself. “I was nervous so I didn’t eat. That’s why I fainted.”
“That was stupid!” His alarm for her climbed into the rafters. “I’ll order something. Are you on a special diet?” He was across the room with the hotel phone in his hand before her plea stopped him.
“Paolo, don’t. Not here. Not like this.” She lowered her arm to reveal a disturbingly unguarded expression and nodded at her state of undress. She wasn’t taking this as lightly as she seemed. “Just pour me a glass of soda. Something with sugar, but no caffeine. And maybe a banana or one of those oranges? Then I’ll go back to my room and have a proper meal sent up.”
He fetched what she’d asked for, assembling her micro-meal on the coffee table then standing by as she carefully sat up.
The intensity of his tension struck him. He watched her pour and sip with a silent will for her to consume faster, like this was anti-venom she was taking in and her survival vitally important to him. The reality was, they were acquaintances through her husband. He didn’t know her well at all and couldn’t afford to trust her no matter how attracted to him she acted or how vulnerable she seemed.
From day one she had thrown out those conflicting signals, seeming interested yet always turning to Ryan. She wasn’t the first woman to feed her ego by using one man’s attention to make another jealous, but she was the only one who had managed to both draw Paolo in and incite his green monster. Paolo refused to be treated as a plaything. It made him all the more certain she was setting him up in some way.
“You need to get back to your party,” she murmured, carrying the icy glass of soda to her temple.
“No one will miss me,” he dismissed, even though he was distantly aware of the same thing.
“Isabella will,” she admonished. Then, keeping her face averted, asked, “Are you going to marry her?”
He hesitated. This news of Lauren’s was more than even his lightning mind could process quickly, but he couldn’t turn his life upside down without thinking it through. It would be humiliating to believe her and discover he’d been tricked again. Best to stay the course until he had better evidence for a correction.
“It would be a good match,” he said, hammering Isabella’s top qualities for both their benefits. “Her father is at the UN, her mother works with an international aid organization. Isabella understands life on the stage of global politics. Yes, I intend to marry her.”
Lauren made a noise of acknowledgement that almost sounded like the gasp from an absorbed blow.
Her reaction inexplicably caused invisible wires to pull him tighter than his tension already had him. A pike of misgiving speared through him and he instinctively wanted to rethink everything he’d just said.
It was exactly the turmoil he wouldn’t allow her to put him through. He brushed aside the detour into self-doubt as she spoke again.
“I didn’t hear anything about love. That was the problem with your first marriage, wasn’t it?” She kept her attention on the orange she was separating into sections, holding it well away from her gown.
He stared at the top of her head, willing her to look up at him and dare to say that. At the same time, his gut twisted with guilt. It was true, he’d had very little affection for his ex, but she’d still managed to devastate him. It was one reason he was determined to pin his future on Isabella and not a woman he truly loved. To be betrayed was one thing, to love and be betrayed would be impossible to bear.
“Love is for fools,” he muttered.
With a snort of cynicism, Lauren chortled, “Ain’t that the truth.”
Hearing her echo the sentiment irritated him. The way she had turned to him in Charleston had proved to him she wasn’t as devoted to Ryan as she’d portrayed through her marriage. This was further evidence she had scorned a man who had worshipped her.
“I guess that makes Ryan a fool, marrying for love,” Paolo said scathingly.
“Are you serious?” Her amber gaze flashed up like a splash of bourbon, stinging with hot-cold. “If he loved me so much, why did he spend all his time on the other side of the world taking insane chances with his life? He married me because I was raised to wait until I had a ring on my finger and he wanted bragging rights.”
“A clever ploy on your part, seeing as his family is quite well off,” he shot back, while a flash of Ryan’s smug, victor’s grin hit him square between the eyes. There could be some truth to her claim. He had another suspicion about his friend’s motives, one that was even less complimentary. They had always been competitive with each other, he and Ryan. It was usually good-natured, but there were times it had been cutthroat and Ryan had been in no doubt that Paolo found Lauren attractive.
“It wasn’t a ploy, it’s the truth,” Lauren bit out defensively, pulling Paolo’s thoughts from a dark place he rarely visited.
It was a place of bitterness he barely understood because he never examined it, but it filled him with enough acrimony to challenge, “You married for sex then?”
Disbelief dropped her jaw before her outrage fell away to wounded pride.
Her stunned silence pricked his conscience. He almost began forming an apology for crossing a line, but a self-conscious flush flooded into her cheeks. She looked naked and culpable, but her expression carried an edge of defiance that gave him a tingle of premonition. He unconsciously braced himself.
With her blush firmly in place, but a disconcertingly frank look sweeping over her, she sat straighter and said defiantly, “Perhaps I did marry for sex. I was curious and not confident enough to believe any other man would be interested, but I did love Ryan, in my immature way.”
That was too much honesty. He looked away, wanting to refute what she was saying by pointing out he had been interested, but that would only muddy already dark waters. Immature he would accept, while the rest he held in reserve. He needed to view her as deceitful in order to keep his distance. Otherwise he’d have to believe everything she was saying about this baby she was carrying and where would that leave him? Not upholding the honor of his family name the way he’d sworn to do after so disgracing it with his ugly divorce.
He would have to believe that when Lauren had woken him from the first sleep he’d had in forty-eight hours by sliding her caressing hand into his shirt, it had been from genuine want, not ulterior motives.
The pulse of desire that hit with that possibility was a sledgehammer straight into his gut, bathing him in heat. His hungry gaze moved restlessly to eat up the way her shorn head revealed her slender neck and the graceful slant of her nude shoulders. Her deshabille gave off a sexy, yet ingenuous appearance.
Don’t fall for it, he cautioned himself, but couldn’t help thinking that no matter whose baby grew in her belly, she was still a woman without a husband to provide for her. She was susceptible and he was, at his core, a protective man.
He was duty-bound to protect his family though. And what did it matter whether she had married for love or not? She was also admitting to resentment that her husband had been away a lot. What she’d done during those long absences was very much up for scrutiny. Perhaps he should take her at her word that she wasn’t asking him to be a father, only wanted to warn him about an impending media storm.
“Where are you planning to go?” he asked, hitching the knees of his pants as he sank into the sofa opposite her.
“I told you. To my room.” She darted out her tongue to catch the juice from the orange that ran down her finger.
She might as well have stroked that tongue where he’d feel it most. His loins were still pooled with simmering heat and he reacted as though she had licked him, experiencing the strain into an erection so swiftly, he stifled a grunt of pain. If he could have stood, he would have walked out on her.
“You said you were leaving the country,” he reminded in a hostile clip that caused the brightness in her gaze to dim. Good. There was no room for sensuous picnics between them.
“Italy,” she replied stiffly.
He choked, certain he’d misheard. “Like hell you are. That’s my home.”
“I’m sorry, do you own the entire country? The brochures didn’t say.” That sexy mouth had a quick motor behind it, didn’t it?
“Did I misunderstand what you said about minimizing damage? Or do you only intend to be discreet where it affects your interests?” he asked.
“It’s not like I’m going to call up your family and introduce myself! I want to look up my own, if you must know.”
He leaned back, stretching his arms across the sofa back so he wouldn’t lean forward and throttle her. One could argue, if she was telling the truth, that looking up her family constituted looking up his own. A ferocious sensation accosted him each time he came back to her assertion that the baby was his, like poking an abscessed tooth with his tongue. He dismissed it, focusing on the more immediate problem.
“This is the first I’ve heard that you have Italian relatives. Who are they? Where do they live?”
“My mother’s father was Italian, not that she’d admit it.” She broke off a piece of banana and carefully nibbled. “My grandmother came home pregnant. Mom was her love-child.”
Lauren’s lashes flickered as her gaze dropped and her brows tugged together. He heard her thoughts. Her baby wasn’t a love-child. What was it then? A mistake? The product of a one-night stand? His?
The questions carved an ever-deepening hollow behind his breastbone, one that he pitilessly ignored.
“The man who would be my grandfather was married,” she continued. “His wife was very sick. They had a daughter and he didn’t feel he could leave either of them. That’s what he told Mamie. I don’t know if it was the truth, but Mamie loved him.” A smile of wistful affection quirked her lips. “Until the last day of her life.”
“Odd that you didn’t inherit her sense of loyalty, given how much she meant to you.” It was a nasty thing to say, but he didn’t like how easily she was drawing him into her poignant little web.
She took the insult with a tiny sniff of hurt, then opened guileless eyes and responded, “My Italian blood must have led me astray.”
He ground his teeth. “You have no concept what kind of lion you’re riling, do you, cara? I may wear banker’s suits, but I know how to scrap.”
She paled a bit as she carefully wiped her fingers on the cloth napkin he’d provided, but she didn’t intimidate. Her gaze was level when she met his.
“Honestly, Paolo? There’s only one thing you could do to truly hurt me. That would be to take this baby away from me. I don’t think you’d harm either of us and it doesn’t sound like you want to fight me for it, either. You’d have to admit it’s yours, and you hate me too much to do that.” Her lips went bloodless as she pronounced that. Her eyelashes flickered as though she didn’t quite understand how that could be.
While he caustically wondered how she imagined it could be otherwise.
For five years she’d been tossing shimmering ropes of curiosity at him even as she attached herself to Ryan. When he’d met her, he’d been days away from his own marriage, but unable to let the wolves prowling the bar they’d been in to consume her. He’d pulled her and her cousin into his booth while he waited for Ryan, entranced by Lauren’s shy, understated wit and killer legs. When Ryan had arrived, Paolo had expected his friend to remove with her cousin to Ryan’s hotel room, but no. His friend had turned his good ol’ boy charm on Lauren and she had blushed under the attention of two men.
Engaged, there was nothing Paolo could do but warn his friend against being cavalier with an obvious virgin. He’d been shocked six months later when Ryan had announced he was marrying her, partly because Paolo hadn’t realized they’d kept in touch. By then he’d been so deeply entrenched in the loss of his father and minimizing the damage of his marriage imploding, he’d convinced himself that whatever attraction he’d felt toward Lauren had been a bachelor’s last hurrah.
Then he’d glimpsed her arriving at the church and the magnetism had been even stronger than he’d remembered. Unbalanced by it, he’d blurted out a hasty are-you-sure lecture to Ryan that went nowhere. Inexplicably, Paolo had been filled with rage as the vows were spoken. The entire ceremony had become a living hell, his abominable desire for Lauren growing like a snowball careening down a hill. He’d tried to drink it away, unable to make sense of his reaction while longing for the evening to be over.
Then Lauren had followed him outside looking like the most delectable innocent ever sacrificed to a man’s basest hunger. Ryan’s hunger. Paolo had kissed her. The hard, passionate kiss they’d shared burned on his lips and conscience to this day.
If she hadn’t returned his ardor all of this would be different, but she’d kissed him like he was the only man she would ever want and that had made everything worse. He hated her for letting the kiss go on too long, for escalating behavior he’d put down to intoxication and grief into something unforgettable. He inwardly cringed from the weakness it represented and the hurt he—they—had caused people he cared about.
The degradation never left him. Best man. To this day, no one asked him to hold the position, always joking it wasn’t in the groom’s interest. Of course he hated her for that. Charleston was merely fuel to the fire while this fiasco with a baby made it impossible for him to feel anything toward her but animosity and suspicion.
“Your silence says everything, doesn’t it?” she said with a little quaver in her voice. “That’s fine. As I said, the baby is my only vulnerability so unless you decide it’s yours, you’re completely powerless to touch me.” Setting aside her napkin with a hand that shook, she secured her dress with crossed arms and stood to turn her back. “Could you close the hooks so I can go to my room?”
He didn’t move, eyeing that slender back where the punishing marks were fading. Her shoulders seemed to have fallen a notch and that made something teeter in his chest before he quickly closed off to anything like mercy or regret. Focus.
Nevertheless, he tasted a hint of self-contempt that he had it in him to be cruel to a woman, even one who wasn’t as defenseless as she looked, but he had a lot to safeguard.
“My family is in government, cara,” he reminded gently. “I’m hardly powerless. I’d hate for you to endure a long flight only to be turned away by customs.”
She spun slowly, her spine stretching as she lengthened it with umbrage. “You wouldn’t.”
Try me, he dared with an unflinching gaze, feeling a catch of the old, reckless Paolo who had gambled too often in too many ways. It filled him with elation.
“Be a good girl and go back to Quebec,” he cajoled, adding a smile of condescension for good measure.
Her nostrils flared as she drew in a breath like a cloud gathering volume. Her fists closed into angry knots of white against her bare, upper chest as she kept her dress pinned to her front.
“Don’t you dare,” she said from between clenched teeth, “tell me to rattle around that empty mansion again. That’s all I’ve done for months and I’m sick of it!”
Her quiet ferocity should have warned him off, but it stoked his inward excitement, priming him for a badly needed contest of wills.
“I’ll do what I please,” he stated with quiet brutality.
“So will I! Ryan was supposed to send for me after Mamie died and instead—” She stopped herself. Her gaze averted as her face crumpled into anguished struggle to overcome unvoiced, but very intense pain.
Ryan had disappeared.
Paolo’s desire to punish her evaporated in a wrench of grief and self-disgust. Her pain hurt him. If she broke down, he didn’t know what he’d do. He couldn’t hold her, couldn’t touch her. He knew that way led to madness.
“Lauren,” was all he could say. He leaned forward, unable to help that her name came out like an entreaty. Don’t fall apart. Don’t make me bed you again.
She took his murmur of her name as an attempt to persuade.
“No,” she refused truculently. “I won’t do it, Paolo. I spent all those years with Mamie because I wanted to and I don’t feel like I gave up my youth the way everyone said I would, but I do recognize that I have only this tiny window between now and when the baby will tie me down. This is my time and I’m taking it. Don’t try to stop me by having me questioned at the airport. You won’t like what I tell them.”
Her harsh threat, so surprisingly effective, chilled him to the bone. He couldn’t take it lightly. “You’re bitchier than you look,” he muttered with unmitigated contempt.
Lauren jerked as though that verbal slap had landed well, but tossed her head to shake it off. “I don’t want to do it. It’s up to you. I didn’t come here to start a war. I’ve told you, I don’t want anything from you. I’ll try to keep the secret as long as I can. Despite—”
Her voice caught and she hugged herself tighter, swaying a little.
He glanced at the plate and calculated she’d had two sections of orange and a bite of banana, chased by a little soda. Damned fool. He stood, prepared to catch her again.
“Despite the circumstances under which this baby was conceived, I’m happy about it,” she rushed to say.
What circumstances were those? his most cynical side longed to demand. Better that than dwelling on a memory so bittersweet he couldn’t let it out of its vault. He had to keep his attention on not taking her claim at face value. Paternity could be established in time, but the reality of today was, no matter who had fathered her baby, once the pregnancy became evident, the world would look to him as the culprit.
And until he knew indisputably that it was his, he didn’t intend to be accused of it.
“My dress?” she prompted, turning her back again.
“How will you get out of it once you’re alone?” He slipped off his tuxedo jacket and dropped it across her shoulders, swamping her narrow back and making her look younger and more innocent than he could stand.
“There’s nothing I can say or do to keep you from going to Italy?” he demanded.
“I leave tomorrow. It’s a done deal.”
“Cosi sia,” he muttered. So be it. At least she’d be out of the States, the country that would be most scandalized by a pregnancy that spoke of a betrayal against their national hero.
Taking her elbow, he steered her toward the elevator. She was tense in his grip, her weight leaning into his hold more than he expected and she was very pale. The evening had taken a toll. Perhaps the baby had as well. An unwanted clench of concern firmed his grip on her arm.
At the same time, his mind raced. He had intended to be in the air first thing with Isabella, Vittorio and Vittorio’s parents, delivering Isabella to her parents’ immediately upon arrival. All his Christmas arrangements would have to be reviewed and reconsidered. His entire calendar for the next quarter, perhaps the next year. Perhaps his entire life. Damn you, Lauren.
“You’re landing in Rome?” he questioned gruffly.
She paused to glance up warily as they stepped into the elevator. “Milan. Why?” she challenged with suspicion.
“Milan,” he repeated under his breath, thinking it was both more and less convenient. His agile mind leapt to possibilities.
Thankfully, they saw no one on the way to her room. He took her keycard and opened her door while she shrugged out of his jacket and returned it. When she lifted a strained look to him, he saw only pouted, tender lips, and a melancholy shadow in her eyes. And yet the sensuality was there, the child-goddess yet to be awakened to her full potential. Those conflicting signals of innocence and sin fascinated him. He wanted to kiss her.
“You left Charleston so abruptly after the funeral. I never said—”
His heart clenched. “Don’t thank me, Lauren. I won’t like it,” he warned. And yet… No. He tamped down hard on feelings he never should have had, never should have given in to.
“Goodbye,” she finished with gravity. “I never said goodbye.”
The finality in her tone and the resolve in her expression grabbed him by the throat.
“Ciao,” he managed past the strangling fist. He was clinging to hostile suspicion and inescapable guilt like it was a life raft, trying to convince himself this would be goodbye if he could only prove the baby wasn’t his.
But he couldn’t say it. Not yet.
“Buona notte, bella.”