The Consequence He Must Claim
BOOK 2 in the Wrong Heirs Duet
Sorcha Kelly fell head over heels for her impossibly irresistible boss years ago. When she discovered he was dutifully engaged, she had to leave to protect her heart. However, her resignation broke the seal on the dangerous chemistry that always simmered between them, and that evening it consumed them both.
After surviving a violent car crash, Cesar Montero lost the memories of the ardent hours he shared with his effortlessly seductive PA. So when Cesar discovers that their time together resulted in a lasting consequence, he’s determined to claim his child and relive the white-hot night he can no longer recall…again and again!
But this wasn’t her baby. That was her baby. That woman held her baby.
— Sorcha, The Consequence He Must Claim, Book Two: THE WRONG HEIRS
Most days I walk to pick up the mail. It’s a decent hike (with a hill), almost five kilometers round trip. I can’t tell you what the weather was like the day the central concept of this story struck, but I do remember where I was standing (outside the ice cream shop, but it was closed for winter.)
I was mentally working on the baby swap duet. I do a lot of plotting on my walks. This one was going to be the second and I had a strong sense of how the first book would go, but I had no idea what this one would look like beyond the couple being the other half of the mix up. I was going through all the different tropes: Royals? Mistresses? PA? Then amnesia struck. By that I mean the idea of amnesia as a plot device hit me.
What if the hero had amnesia and he didn’t even know he’d had sex with the heroine? What if he only finds out about his secret baby when he’s called for a DNA sample because they have to identify all the parents in this bizarre baby swap scenario?
I became so excited to write this book. I won’t include any spoilers about Cesar’s memory loss, but his amnesia is at the core of his conflict, making him suitably angry at the world.
Sorcha, meanwhile, is a tough, cheeky, tender-hearted heroine who loved Cesar long before she slept with him. Unfortunately, she knows what happens when a man is married to a woman he doesn’t love. He cheats! That’s what her father did and it destroyed her childhood. She doesn’t want anything to do with Cesar’s marriage of convenience suggestion.
But they have a son. So they must work things out.
If you want to read the first book in this duet, look for The Marriage He Must Keep. It tells the story of Alessandro and Octavia as they try to save their own marriage of convenience after their baby is swapped with Sorcha’s.
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The Consequence He Must Claim
Eight months ago…
Sorcha Kelly entered the hospital with determined steps. It was coming up to three weeks. They had to let her see him. Especially now that she knew. Not just suspected but knew she was pregnant.
Before this, Cesar Montero’s family had only seen her as his personal assistant. Devoted, absolutely. His entire family appreciated her dedication. They couldn’t have transitioned the running of the multinational engineering firm back into his father’s capable hands without her. She’d been invaluable in those first difficult days after the crash.
But she was only his PA and he’d been unconscious, with visitors limited to his immediate family. Plus his fiancée, of course.
How, exactly, did an unconscious man get engaged? That’s what Sorcha wanted to know. Aside from crossing paths at a few family events, Cesar hadn’t even been seeing Diega. The agreement between the families to eventually merge assets via marriage had been an expectation, not a written contract or even an emotional one.
Cesar’s mother was the one who’d been pressing to formalize the engagement. Cesar had confided his reluctance to follow through with it to Sorcha that last day.
Obviously his family didn’t know Cesar had left Sorcha the evening of the crash to inform Diega the marriage wouldn’t happen. He’d seen Diega. The woman had admitted to authorities that he’d been at her house and left again, so why was Diega acting like the marriage was on? Like plans had advanced from “maybe” to “absolutely”?
How had she gone from family friend to fiancée in the sliver of time that Cesar had spent at the bottom of a cliff in a bashed-up car?
The question tortured Sorcha every moment of every day while she waited for Cesar to wake up and explain himself.
He’d stayed in a coma for so long, however, she’d begun to anticipate that if she did turn up pregnant, this baby might be a comfort to his family. Then he had awoken and she knew he would explain that she was meant to be at his side, not Diega.
Except that didn’t happen. His father had dropped by the office to explain that Cesar had lost a week’s worth of memories prior to the crash. He didn’t recall the ribbon cutting on the bridge in Madrid and was quite anxious to oversee it, el Excelentísimo Señor Montero had added with one of his distracted frowns, the one that suggested he was exasperated by humans and their mortal frailties.
Sorcha had stared, speechless, at the Duke of Castellon. Cesar’s private celebration of the bridge with her once they’d returned to Valencia had given way to a heart-to-heart and eventually their life-changing body-to-body connection. Cesar remembered nothing of that?
How did one process such news? All she’d felt was a void inside her. Like their magical afternoon hadn’t happened.
Somehow she had swallowed back a dry lump and asked if she could see him. “Not necessary,” his father had told her.
It really was. Sorcha wouldn’t believe Cesar’s loss of memory until he’d told her himself, especially now that the evidence of their lovemaking was confirmed by a tiny pink stripe on a wand.
Surely if he saw her, he would remember?
As the doors of the private hospital slid closed behind her, her mouth was arid, her skin numb, her limbs electrified by three weeks of sustained tension. Rough treatment in her teens had taught her how to keep a mask of confident indifference on her face, however. And working with Cesar had granted her certain entitlements these last three years. She approached the doors to the interior as though she had every right to enter.
“Señorita?” a clerk at the lobby desk called, halting her as efficiently as the electronically sealed doors. She wore a smart, modern uniform and was well foiled by the clean, peach and plum tones of the lobby.
“Bon dia,” Sorcha said, using Valencian, which she had learned from Cesar, rather than her excellent Spanish, which might label her an outsider. She added a respectful “Sister,” then said. “Sorcha Kelly for Cesar Montero,” punctuated with her I-screen-visitors-too smile. We’re practically twins.
The Sister tapped keys on her computer, then smiled benignly. “I don’t have your name on the list.”
“I’m sure if you call, he’ll confirm he wants to see me,” Sorcha assured her.
As the Sister picked up her phone to dial, the entrance doors swished open and Diega Fuentes entered. Diega Fuentes y Losa de Mateu, to be precise, daughter of the Marques de los Jardines de Las Salinas. She definitely looked rich enough to have more names than she could use. Her tall, slender silhouette was practically haloed in designer labels with imaginary arrows pointing to her purse and earrings, lipstick and strappy heels. Her sundress was a fluttery cornflower blue with white polka dots, her sleek black hair a stunning frame for her elegant bone structure, lightly golden skin and bottomless eyes.
Sorcha hadn’t been able to fully cover the dark circles under her eyes and wore her work clothes—a gray pencil skirt with a matching vest over a white top. Given the worry she’d been enduring, along with a hint of morning sickness, her complexion was probably greener than her eyes.
Cesar’s “fiancée” did a small double take, then sauntered toward Sorcha.
Sorcha hated her. Not because she was claiming to be engaged to Cesar, but because everything about her struck Sorcha as fake and calculating. Sorcha knew how to keep her feelings to herself, however, so she worked up the warm smile she’d perfected for Cesar’s many, many conquests.
And she wouldn’t even think of those women right now. She was not one of a crowd. She wasn’t.
Ignoring the weight of insecurity that descended on her, she moved forward to meet Diega. “Señorita Fuentes. Thank goodness. I’ll go up with you to see Cesar.”
“Did he call you?” Diega asked with mild surprise and what might have been a flicker of uneasiness in her lashes.
Sorcha was nothing if not honest, but she wasn’t above small prevarications when the stakes were this high. “His father said he was anxious to catch up on work, so…” Obviously he needs me, she intimated.
Diega took a small breath and manufactured a tight smile, like she was preparing for a difficult conversation. Sliding her gaze to the Sister, she asked, “May we speak privately…? Perfect,” she murmured as they were pointed to a small lounge off the lobby.
The room was bright, but looked onto the street. Eggplant-colored cushioned benches lined the walls and a television on low volume hung in the corner. The space was no doubt utilized by drivers and other personnel who were required to wait for their employers, people not exalted enough to ascend to the patients’ rooms.
Sorcha choked back a feeling of lowered circumstances that hadn’t sat so jagged and bitter in the back of her throat since her father’s death had drastically changed her mother’s situation in their Irish village.
Controlling a wave of panic, Sorcha conjured an expression of mild interest while Diega took great care closing the door, trapping them in the fishbowl.
“You understand that he’s lost a piece of his memory,” Diega said in what Sorcha imagined was supposed to be a break-it-to-her-gently tone.
“I’ve worked with him for almost three years. He hasn’t forgotten that, has he?”
“No, of course not,” Diega said smoothly. “But he’s not up to working. His doctor suggests he put that off for a few months. If you have a concern at the office, you should take it up with Javiero.”
Diega didn’t stoop to titles. She was on a first-name basis with Cesar’s father, as her casual tone demonstrated. Even when the titles were the highest in the land.
Sorcha swallowed. “He’s more than my employer. When you work that closely with someone, you care about his well-being. I’d like him to know we’re all wishing him well.”
If her firm tone said, “Shut up and let me through the doors,” she couldn’t help it. Three weeks without Cesar’s distantly amused mouth, framed by sculpted stubble, was an eternity. Three weeks without aqua eyes that always met hers, never strayed below her collar, yet still conveyed masculine admiration, had left her dying of thirst.
“Sorcha.” Diega lowered to perch on the edge of a bench.
Oh, how grotesquely patronizing she was as she nodded at a spot opposite.
Sorcha bit back what she wanted to say—don’t call me that. If she had to say “Señorita Fuentes,” she expected to be called Ms. Kelly in return. “I’d rather stand,” Sorcha said.
Diega lowered her gaze, suggesting an ability to hold onto her dignity even when faced with impertinence.
Forcing down the sort of curse that never crossed her lips, Sorcha set her bottom on the corner of a cushion. “Yes?” she prompted Diega.
“I understand why you feel so concerned. Why you think there’s some sort of familiarity between you.” Her dark eyes came up and they were tarlike, sucking Sorcha forward into suffocating blackness. “He felt very guilty when he came to see me that night.”
Don’t betray a thing, her gut told her, but she licked her lips and asked, “Did he?” in a raspy whisper.
Cesar might not have been in love with Diega, but he was a man of honor. “I shouldn’t be doing this,” he’d said, right before they’d gone past the point of no return. He’d left her while she slept, leaving a text on her phone. Gone to see Diega.
It had stung to wake alone, but after everything they’d talked about leading up to falling into bed—or rather, falling onto his office sofa—Sorcha had been convinced he’d left to cut things off with Diega. Surely that’s what he had done. Surely.
But then, here was Diega claiming they were engaged…
“I haven’t wanted to bring this up. With anyone,” Diega said firmly. “What is the use in smudging reputations or pointing fingers when faced with much more serious concerns? Especially when he assured me that he was simply sowing his final oats.” Her lip curled in a reflection of distaste. Boys will be boys.
“What?” That’s what he had called her? Oats?
The persistent ache in Sorcha’s chest, the one that had been seeded by his leaving her and going to Diega in the first place, expanded with a creeping burn. “That wasn’t—”
“You needn’t deny it,” Diega said with a muted smile. “I appreciate your trying to spare my feelings.”
Did Diega have feelings? As far as Sorcha could see, Diega’s ego had caught a brush of dust. Only mild annoyance tainted her expression. No genuine hurt.
Nevertheless, she gave a little nod of determination that Sorcha read as being seen as an unwelcome bug in the house. Something to be squashed and swept out.
“I had hoped we could both be spared this conversation, but… He said you were planning to resign when we marry. That’s right, isn’t it?”
Sorcha searched Diega’s dark eyes, trying to find the trick because she was sure there was one in the question.
“You told him you don’t care for me,” Diega explained, her smile now philosophical. “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
“I didn’t say it like that,” Sorcha blurted. It struck her as bizarre that, for some reason, she found herself trying to cushion the impact to Diega’s feelings, trying to salvage a relationship she didn’t care about, but it was ingrained in her not to upset the women in Cesar’s life.
She was glad she was sitting because she felt very off balance. She had told Cesar that it was one thing to field calls from last night’s airline hostess or a model he took on vacation. It was something entirely different to stand between a wife and her husband. A potential fiancée in this case, but she’d seen the writing on the wall. Diega was gracious and elegant, but completely unafraid to pull rank.
While Sorcha had grown fond of being the most important woman in Cesar’s life.
He had told Diega she had said she didn’t like her? That was really unnerving.
“However you said it, once he realized you would be leaving, he did what he does. Didn’t he?” Diega said with a condescending tuck of her chin.
“What do you mean?” Sorcha asked, but one glance at Diega’s pitying smile told her exactly what she meant. “It wasn’t like that,” Sorcha muttered, heart skidding through its own roadside barrier to plummet down an embankment. She had meant more to him than a notch on his bedpost, hadn’t she? She was an honest person, especially with herself. She hadn’t been delusional about his feelings toward her.
But had she really thought they were going to marry and live happily ever after? Their lovemaking had been impetuous, but somewhat inevitable. She had given in to yearnings that had gripped her from the first. But had she really imagined it was the beginning of something serious? Of a life with him?
Deep in her heart of hearts, she knew she wasn’t the kind of woman a man like Cesar married. Facing that made her squirm inwardly, putting her right back in that mindset of being small and worthless again.
She had thought they were friends, though! That he really cared for her.
“You’re legendary among his inner circle, you know,” Diega said. “The PA who held out and therefore held her job for three whole years.” Like that was a joke.
It was a deep mark of pride for her, but Sorcha found herself tightening her lips, not mollified in the least that gossip abounded about her even when there was no shame attached to how she was conducting herself. She hated being talked about.
“To be honest, I would have trusted you after we were married,” Diega said with a lofty elevation of her head. “You could have had a successful career for years to come. But of course we can’t go backward now. I’m very sorry it’s come to this.”
Liar, Sorcha thought. Then, in a panic, wondered, Come to what?
“He was very remorseful. Sorry he’d done it when we were so close to announcing things. Sorry, I think, that he’d made you into a conquest when he had had so much respect for you before.”
His respect was gone? Sorcha’s heart stopped, ears ringing so loudly, she barely heard the rest of what Diega was saying. She had a terrible feeling her mouth was hanging open. She was really nauseous now. Bile burned the back of her throat.
“His ego got the best of him, Sorcha. You know what he’s like. You were the one that looked about to get away. It’s, well, it’s sad, isn’t it?” She cocked her head. They were friends, discussing the pitiful behavior of an incorrigible rake. “He promised he would be faithful once we were engaged and married, but he wanted me to know because you’d still be working for him.”
“I don’t intend to cheat on her,” Cesar had said that day in his office, referring to Diega. Had he viewed Sorcha as his last chance to enjoy his freedom?
“He wanted to come clean because you work for him,” Diega continued. “You’re not one of his passing fancies. He rightly felt he had to tell me and I admit I wasn’t prepared to start our engagement with you still in the picture. I insisted he end your employment as soon as possible, not keep you on until we married. I’ll have to live with the fact that I sent him away rather than letting him stay to talk things out. If he hadn’t been in such a rush to secure our engagement, he wouldn’t have been on the road that evening, trying to avoid that stalled truck…”
Sorcha shook her head. No. That was not what had happened. “He and I talked that day,” she said, not willing to accept this without a fight, but she stopped herself. Cesar’s confidences were exactly that. She never, ever repeated the things he told her.
“About his doubts? He was a bachelor with cold feet who wanted to persuade you to sleep with him! I wouldn’t give much weight to anything he said under those circumstances.”
Cold feet, yes, he’d definitely been suffering that, but there were other things. “The way you talk about your family. Our family is a business. I prefer it, but I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be close like that,” he’d said pensively.
His family’s negotiation to merge with the Fuentes family was very big business. Those sorts of deals weren’t dropped willy-nilly just so a man could sleep with his secretary, she knew that, but…
But he had asked her to stay.
“The kindest thing you could do,” Diega said, like she was offering step-by-step instructions on how a mistress should conduct herself after discovery by a wife, “would be to leave. I’ll speak to Javiero, ensure you’re written the best possible reference. Given Cesar’s condition, none of us wants a scandal. He’s facing a long, difficult recovery as it is. You don’t want to set him back, do you? I believe you do care for him.”
I’m pregnant, Sorcha thought as waves of hot and cold humiliation washed over her.
Was she really just the one that almost got away? She couldn’t believe it. He’d seemed so real that day. Not the playboy Diega was referring to, but the man capable of reflecting on his life and deciding who and what he really was.
“He doesn’t even remember it, Sorcha,” Diega said with soft compassion. “I’m grateful. I plan to forget it as completely as he has. And we will marry,” she added, as if making a resolution that would be engraved into platinum. “We all know what sort of life he leads and what sort of wife he needs.”
Sorcha stopped breathing, recalling that she had confided some of her background to Cesar that day. Had he mentioned any of that to Diega during their little heart-to-heart?
“I won’t claim he doesn’t value your work, but I hope you weren’t thinking he was in love with you?”
Sorcha looked at her nails, manicure neglected in these last stressful weeks, cuticles chewed with anxiety.
I’m pregnant, she thought again, but she could just imagine how that would play out: Cesar denying it was even possible, his parents thinking it was a ploy on her part to take advantage of his riches. Paternity tests. Delving into her background to discredit her.
She couldn’t do that to her mother.
Revealing her pregnancy would create bitterness all around and even if she could prove she was telling the truth, then what? Did she think he would marry her? Claim his child?
At best she might see a settlement, but she and her sisters were evidence that even when rich men made babies and appeared to love them, they didn’t always make provisions for them. That was the real source of her shame over her upbringing—that her father had left them with no indication they were as important to him as he’d led them to believe while he was alive. All the denigration in the village combined didn’t equal the rejection she’d felt when it became obvious her father had left them nothing.
Not even the ability to hold up their heads.
Her mother had maintained that he’d loved them, which had kept her going, but Sorcha didn’t even have such a declaration of love from Cesar.
He could very well have been using her. Ticking a final box.
Did she really want to put herself through all of that for a check in the mail once a month that would just make her feel like a whore? Her mother had managed without support payments and Sorcha would rather spare herself the humiliation of begging for scraps.
“You were planning to resign,” Diega said again. “Do. Before his father has to hear about this.” “Because I’ll tell him,” she seemed to threaten.
Sorcha’s eyes burned. “I want to see him,” she said in a thin voice.
“Please, Sorcha. I’ve been far more civil than anyone could expect me to be. Show me you have enough remorse, enough class, not to make this worse.”
Class. Ouch. Perhaps Diega did know where she came from.
I hate you, Sorcha asserted silently as she rose and leveled her chin. Beyond the windows, the sunny brilliance of Valencia was a streaked image of blue sky and concrete gray, chrome and luxury-car black, early summer flowers blooming in a kaleidoscope of colors between.
“He has my number,” she said.
A tiny snort sounded, letting Sorcha know Cesar wouldn’t be dialing it on Diega’s watch. Then she veiled her triumph with good manners, standing and opening the door.
Sorcha didn’t offer her hand, didn’t look for Diega’s. She was convinced Cesar would reach out to her, though. He had to. She wouldn’t disgrace herself the way her mother had, pleading for favors from the family of her children’s father only to be cast out anyway. If Cesar didn’t remember how and why they’d wound up making love, he’d think she was exactly as Diega painted her: one more woman who’d fallen under his spell.
No, if he called her, she wanted it to be because he missed her. It would be better that way, she assured herself. She wouldn’t be accused of trying to trap him with a baby. She’d know it was about her, not duty or obligation.
In the short term, however, that left her with one option: go home to tell her mother she’d made the same mistake she’d grown up with.
Sorcha ended the call and grabbed a tissue to let the tears release. Oh, she was homesick and filled with self-pity, not that she had wanted her mum to hear it.
Mum was probably doing the same thing. They were both pretending Sorcha’s situation wasn’t a disaster and this emergency caesarian in London was the icing on the cake. Things really couldn’t get any worse.
She so wished she’d managed to get home before going into labor. She might have found a decent job here after quitting right after that disastrous talk with Diega, but Ireland was where her heart was. If her son wouldn’t be recognized as Spanish, like his father, she had at least wanted him born on Irish soil.
It hadn’t happened.
Her nurse, Hannah, came in with a wheelchair and a chipper offer to take her down to meet him. Finally.
That brought a smile to Sorcha’s face. She might be lonely here, but at least she had her son now. She would only be in hospital a few days, Hannah assured her, while the staff confirmed they were both healthy enough to be released. Then Sorcha could make the trek on the ferry and soon be surrounded by the people who loved her.
Her family would adore her son. Little things like being illegitimate just made him more like the rest of them.
Hannah asked how she was feeling and Sorcha started to explain that she had had every intention of delivering naturally, but had gone into labor early and the cord had been in the way, so they’d had to send her for emergency surgery. It had been quite dramatic, arriving on the heels of a tourist bus crash and at the same time as another woman needing an emergency caesarian section in the theater next to hers.
She broke off as they entered the nursery to find crying babies and the other mum from last night. Not that she’d met the stunning Italian woman. Sorcha had only caught a glimpse of a man she’d thought must have been the woman’s husband. She’d heard him speaking Italian on the phone as she was wheeled past him.
“Hello. I heard we were competing for the surgeon’s attention last night,” she greeted. “I’m Sorcha Kelly.”
Wait a minute. That wasn’t the man from last night. He looked sharper, despite his stubble of beard growth. His hair was decidedly shorter.
He offered a polite nod. “Alessandro Ferrante. My wife, Octavia, and our son, Lorenzo,” he said, then glanced at his wife. “That is the name we agreed upon, is it not?”
The other woman seemed…shell-shocked. If she felt anything like Sorcha did, Sorcha sympathized. The anesthetic had made her sluggish and every movement caused the incision across her abdomen to whimper.
Octavia exchanged a look with her husband that Sorcha might have tried to decipher, but the nurse had fetched and loosely wrapped her baby. He was crying furiously, like he’d been at it a while, making her very sorry he’d had to wait.
“Do you mind, Mr. Ferrante?” Hannah said, pirouetting a finger in the air.
He apologized and turned with the sort of male briskness that men showed when confronted with a woman’s demand for modesty.
Sorcha couched a smile. He reminded her of Cesar. Not so much in looks, although they were both very dark and handsome, but in the way he emanated vitality and owned the room.
Cesar, she thought, and missed him all over again. She desperately wanted to be with her family when his wedding took place this weekend, not here in the hospital, nursing melancholy along with his baby.
Murmuring a tender greeting, she closed her arms around the delicious weight of the bundled infant. Hers, she thought. Not a Montero, just as she wasn’t a Shelby. “Enrique,” she added in a whisper. Cesar’s middle name. She would call him Ricky—
Wait. Something wasn’t right.
He was crying so earnestly the sound broke her heart. She instinctively wanted to do anything soothe him, but…
Distantly she heard Octavia say in a choked voice, “That’s—”
“Octavia,” her husband interrupted with an undertone of warning.
Sorcha wasn’t really tracking the other people in the room. She cocked her head, perplexed, as she tried to figure out why her feelings for this baby were protective, but not maternal.
“Just put him to the breast. He’ll latch. They know what to do,” Hannah urged.
“I don’t think—” Sorcha couldn’t even voice her thoughts, they were so bizarre. She found her gaze lifting and looked across to the baby Octavia was trying to soothe. Octavia rubbed his back and rocked him and for some weird reason, that boy’s cries went through Sorcha’s skin like rippling waves, moving things in her she couldn’t even name.
As Octavia held Sorcha’s stare in a kind of eerie transfixion, she lowered the baby so Sorcha could see his face.
Sorcha looked at the squalling infant. His brows were wrinkled in a way that she knew, like an imprint on a part of her that recognized its own kind. That frown of displeasure was all Cesar, and those miniature lips—they were a replica of the mouth she’d seen in the mirror all her life.
Horror washed over her in a clammy rush.
“What’s wrong?” Hannah asked as the other nurse blurted out something, but Sorcha wasn’t listening.
“How did you…?” she began, sharp suspicion rising. She cut herself off. It was beyond outlandish. People didn’t steal babies. They certainly didn’t sit across from you and taunt you with it. That was something from a psycho thriller film.
But her heart was pounding in terror. Confusion and certainty warred and she began to shake under the strain of it.
Baring the ankle of the baby she held, she turned the tag with a trembling hand. It read, Kelly.
But this wasn’t her baby. That was her baby. That woman held her baby.
Beginning to panic, Sorcha flashed her gaze to Octavia’s, not sure what she expected. An evil grin?
Octavia’s lower lip was trembling. “They wouldn’t believe me,” she said weakly.
“Believe what?” Hannah asked.
“My wife is confused,” Alessandro said, and moved between Sorcha and her baby, trying to take the infant Octavia held.
“Don’t,” Sorcha blurted, and understood the kind of irrational yet powerful instinct that drove animals to overcome self-preservation, confront dangerous predators and protect their young with every last breath in their body. “Don’t touch him.”
The baby she held was screaming her ears off and part of her wanted to comfort him, but that was her baby over there. That one.
She struggled to her feet and came across to Octavia. The other woman had tears on her cheeks.
“No one would believe me,” Octavia told her again. “I wanted to feed him, but he needs his own mama and they wouldn’t give me mine…”
They clumsily exchanged babies and the dizzying panic that had nearly overwhelmed Sorcha began to subside. Her heart continued to race and adrenaline burned up her veins.
“I believe you,” she said, smiling shakily now that her son’s sweet scent filled her nostrils. She kissed his cheek and clasped him against her chest, knowing with unequivocal certainty that this was her son. Cesar’s son. “Of course we know our own babies.”
What the hell had just happened? What the hell?
As if reflecting the emotions Sorcha felt, Octavia nodded, eyes closing as she bent her head over the baby she obviously loved and had been aching to hold.
How long had she been sitting here holding Enrique, trying to convince them to give her the right baby? In the face of that torture, Octavia had still tried to soothe Sorcha’s son.
A funny little bond formed between them even as Sorcha seated herself and brought Enrique to her breast. Silence descended as both boys finally received the meal they’d been begging for. Still very bewildered, Sorcha exchanged a teary smile with Octavia.
And became aware of profound silence.
“What are you doing?” Alessandro’s gruff male voice was astounded.
“Can’t you see they mixed them up? Look at him,” Octavia said.
“It’s impossible,” Hannah said. “We have very strict protocols. They couldn’t have been switched. You shouldn’t be doing this,” she warned, rolling the tag around on Enrique’s ankle. It read, Ferrante—Boy. “You both have it wrong.”
Now that she was seated and had her baby calmed, Sorcha was shifting from disbelief to outrage. How could the hospital mess up something this important?
“You have it wrong,” Sorcha said firmly, brushing Hannah’s hand from her son. If she thought they were going to switch back, they had another think coming. She was ready to draw blood. Only the fact she was holding a fragile newborn kept her seated and rational. “Test them. You’ll see we’re right.”
Chaos ensued as the nurses tried to convince the mothers they’d made a mistake. Thankfully Octavia was as adamant as Sorcha.
Finally the surgeon, Dr. Reynolds, arrived. She was taken aback and involved the hospital administration at once, all the while assuring them the chance of a mix-up was highly unlikely. She wanted to run DNA tests, and would do a blood test now. “It won’t be conclusive, but it could certainly determine if a baby is not with the right pair of parents.”
A jumble of activity left Sorcha feeling like a dupe in a three-card shuffle, trying to follow what they were doing and maintain some control over the situation. While a technician took a blood sample from the baby she held, no one seemed to make note that she knew—knew—that Cesar’s blood type was A. She had worked for him for three years! She knew everything about him.
Eventually everyone cleared out, the men going to look at security tapes while one nurse stayed behind to give her and Octavia slings to snuggle the babies while they dozed in their rockers. Neither of them was prepared to release the infant they each held.
Sorcha tried to relax, chatted briefly with Octavia, but her mind kept tracking back to the fact she’d put Cesar’s name on her admittance form. It had been an emergency delivery. Her mother was registered as next of kin, but Sorcha had wanted Cesar identified as the baby’s father if the worst had happened.
They wouldn’t contact him without speaking to her first, would they?
Cesar Montero subtly pinched the bridge of his nose, fighting a dull headache and a desire to tell his fiancée that he didn’t give a flying rat’s behind about who sat where at their wedding reception. Social arrangements were his mother’s bailiwick. If he’d still had Sorcha, she would have handled this, freeing him up for more important things.
Actually, he’d bet any money she would challenge him with “What’s more important than your wedding?” She’d always been quick to push a family-first agenda, teasing him for being a scientist wired for logic. She’d known when she could give him a nudge and when to back off, though, along with how to plow through minutiae so he didn’t get bored and lose patience. Most importantly, she had been able to make decisions on her own.
But Sorcha was gone, damn her. Without any notice or explanation. She’d left while he’d still been in the hospital, barely awake from his coma. According to his father, she’d discussed it with Cesar in the week that was missing from his memory. Given that he’d been unconscious in those first weeks after the accident, and his father had his own assistant, he could imagine she had felt redundant, but she must have known he’d be back to work eventually. His father could have found her a temporary position in the organization or simply offered her paid leave. She’d had enough vacation time stockpiled.
Jumping ship was unacceptable. If his father hadn’t already written her a glowing reference, Cesar would have been reluctant to. He could have used her more than ever in these first months back at work, as he first went into the office on crutches at his own chemical engineering plant, and had more recently begun resuming the takeover from his father on the rest of the family enterprise.
She was just an employee, he reminded himself, irritated that he was letting her absence rile him. Yes, he missed her efficiency, but he wasn’t a sentimental man. Being friendly with a colleague wasn’t the same as being friends. For all the times she’d been more blunt than he appreciated, their relationship had been a professional one. He directed, she delivered. Sulking because she hadn’t played cards with him in the hospital was not something he would stoop to.
At least she had understood simple instructions, he thought as he glanced at the watch that had started pulsing on his wrist. Diega noticed and looked at him like he’d kicked her Siamese cat. His mother caught on and tsked a noise of disappointment at his rudeness.
“I asked not to be interrupted,” he informed both women, making sure his new assistant heard his displeased tone as he touched the face of his smart watch.
He automatically adjusted the volume in his earpiece as his assistant said, “They claim it’s an emergency. It’s a hospital in London.”
His thoughts leaped to Sorcha, even though there was no reason to expect she would be ill or injured, but he had tracked her on social media far enough to know she was working in that city. Still, if she needed medical attention, she wouldn’t list him as a contact. She had family in Ireland. She was off the company benefits, working for someone else.
He almost refused the call, unable to think of another reason a hospital in London would want to speak to him. He had a vague thought about his siblings’ whereabouts, but neither his brother nor sister was in that city. Hell, he would wind up returning this call later if he didn’t take it now and he would go out of his skull if he didn’t accomplish something constructive with his morning.
“Un momento,” he said, stepping away from the women. “Cesar Montero,” he stated, accepting the call.
“Cesar Montero…y Rosales?” a female voice asked.
“Sí.” He grew more alert at the use of his full name. “Who’s calling?”
She identified herself as an official for the hospital. “Did Ms. Kelly tell you to expect my call?”
“No.” He frowned as he absorbed this was about Sorcha.
“Oh.” She sounded confused. “This is the information she gave on her admittance form. Am I speaking to the correct person? Will you confirm a few details for me?”
“Sí,” he said and gave her his birth date and residential address as requested. He rubbed where the ache in his brow intensified. “What is this about?”
“You haven’t spoken to Ms. Kelly today?” She sounded surprised. The silence that followed struck him as a retreat. She was cautious now.
Instinct made him say carefully, “I’ve been tied up. She left a message, but I haven’t listened to it yet.”
“But you’re aware she was admitted last night?”
“Yes,” he lied, while his heart jolted painfully. They’d asked if he’d spoken to her, he reminded himself. That meant she was speaking. “I’ve been anxious for news,” he added. He was a scientist at heart, but he’d studied conversational manipulations at his mother’s knee. “What can you report?”
“Well, it’s difficult news, I’m afraid. There is a very small possibility the babies have been switched.” She paused, allowing him to react.
He didn’t have a reaction. A chasm of confusion opened in him, one he didn’t want to betray to the woman on the phone, or the two women behind him. He could hear their silence as they waited for him to wrap up this annoying interruption.
“Obviously we’ll be running a DNA test, but we’re hoping a blood test can offer some clarity. How soon could you get to a clinic? Our hospital will cover the charges, but we’re anxious for the results.”
Cesar choked out a laugh. “Are you…?”
He realized where he was. He jerked around to see both his fiancée and his mother staring at him. His mother waved an impatient hand at the seating plan spread across the dining room table. Diega’s features sharpened with query.
The air grew too thick for his lungs. In a kind of daze, he held up a staying finger and walked through the French doors onto the small balcony, closing them behind him. With great care, he lowered the voice that had begun to elevate, looking below to ensure there were no listening ears in the courtyard. His gaze blindly scanned the familiar landscape of his youth: immaculate gardens left barren for winter, dormant grapevines across acres of vineyard, the distant sound of waves washing the shoreline of the Med.
“Are you telling me you want me to provide a sample for a paternity test?” he asked in disbelief.
“Please don’t mistake me. We have no reason to doubt Sorcha Kelly’s identification of you as the father. The issue is whether she is the mother of the baby she is currently nursing. As you can imagine, we’re anxious to have this cleared up.”
He couldn’t speak. It took him a long moment to realize he wasn’t thinking any thoughts. His mind was completely blank.
Was he still feeling the effects of the concussion? No. This was the sort of thing no one in the world could make sense of.
Finally he drew a long ragged breath. “I can clear up my side of things very quickly,” he said, his voice flat and sharp. “I would remember if—” He cut himself off. Swore aloud as his condition struck him like a sledgehammer. Again.
There was no feeling like opening a door where a memory was stored and finding only an empty shelf. It was beyond frustrating. It was like being robbed and if there was one thing he hated above anything, it was a thief.
“Mr. Montero?” she prompted in his ear.
Maybe he didn’t remember sleeping with his secretary, but it didn’t mean he hadn’t.
At least his damaged brain was still agile enough to deal logically with the present situation. The only way to determine if he’d fathered a child in the mysterious missing week was to provide a blood sample.
Of course, that flash of logic did nothing to alleviate the fact that his mind was exploding with questions. Sorcha had promised—sworn with as much solemnity as a bride taking her wedding vows—that she would never sleep with him.
He had believed her. It had taken a long time for him to trust her. He didn’t give his trust easily, not since the industrial espionage that had nearly bankrupted his family. She knew enough about that to know he wouldn’t tolerate lies of any sort.
But he had wanted to sleep with her.
So had she broken her promise and slept with him? Or would this test prove she had identified the wrong man as the father of her child? Perhaps she’d left Spain because she was pregnant and for some reason didn’t want to tell the real father.
That worried him on a different level. She was a truthful person. A lie like that would only be motivated by a need to protect herself or her family. Had she been attacked or something? Was that why she’d fled?
And what was this crazy story about switching infants? This entire situation was something from a telenovela. None of it made sense, but he could begin to restore order very swiftly.
“Of course,” he managed to say. “Where do I have the results sent?”
The administrator returned to the nursery with Octavia’s husband. Something in the grim expression worn by Alessandro made Sorcha close her hands more possessively over Enrique. He had a conversation with his wife that Sorcha couldn’t quite overhear, though she looked up at the mention of her name. She also caught the name Primo. Octavia had told her Primo was the man Sorcha had seen last night, Alessandro’s cousin.
Then the administrator stole everyone’s attention.
“We have your blood types.” He glanced over a form on a clipboard, then looked up. “I’d like to give you the results, even though they’re not conclusive. Ironically, we should have labeled the boys A and B, since that is the blood type they’ve come back with.”
Sorcha listened as Alessandro and Octavia questioned the administrator, confirming their son was type B and Enrique was type A. “If Mr. Montero comes up as an A, we can rule out his fathering this baby.” The man nodded at Lorenzo.
“Did you call him?” Octavia asked, turning to look at Sorcha.
Before Sorcha could remind them all that Cesar was an A, the administrator said, “We’ve been in touch with Mr. Montero. He was heading straight to the clinic and his results should be with us shortly.”
“Wait. What? You called Cesar?” Sorcha screeched, heart dropping so hard and fast it wound up under her feet, squashed by her slippers as her rocking chair came forward.
Everyone looked at her. She’d confided in Octavia that she and Cesar weren’t together, but hadn’t admitted he didn’t even know he was a father. This was horrible.
They needed to get to the bottom of how the babies could have been switched, Sorcha knew that. But Cesar didn’t have to know about any of this!
The nursery cleared out again. Octavia’s husband left with the administrator to further the investigation. Octavia wore a frown as she rocked her sleeping baby, seeming to be trying to comfort herself.
Sorcha found herself doing the same. Warily she glanced at her mobile. She’d changed her number since leaving his company, but Cesar had messaged.
I just gave a blood sample. Why?
She could hear his coolest, sternest, tell-me-now tone in the short message.
Oh, hell, oh, hell, oh, hell. He was getting married this weekend. Should she have told him? How many times had she gone round this mulberry bush of trying to work out the lesser of all the evils? He didn’t remember what they’d done. He hadn’t called.
He didn’t care.
She looked at Enrique’s sleeping features, so endearing. Surely Cesar would fall in love as easily as she had? At least she had known her father loved her, even if he hadn’t made provisions for them after his death. What would Cesar say, though? His family was the complete opposite of hers: perfectly respectable, yet absent of warmth and the urge for attachment. Was Cesar capable of loving his son? Or would he reject both of them? That was what had kept her from calling—not wanting to face his indifference.
Can I call you? she shakily messaged back.
I’ll be there in a few hours.
“No-o-o-o…” Sorcha moaned, drawing Octavia’s startled glance.
“Is everything all right?” her new friend asked, concerned.
It was too sordid to reveal. “Lost a game,” Sorcha lied and tucked her phone away.
What would it do to her to see him again? These months without Cesar had been like a drought, her chest heavy and her limbs weighted as she yearned for him. He hadn’t contacted her, though. He didn’t feel any of the same pangs.
Hugging their baby, she wished she could spirit her mother across the water to stand by her here in London as effortlessly as Cesar could pilot his own jet from Spain. She desperately needed support to face him.
The sky was pewter and drizzling when Cesar parked his car outside the hospital. His phone buzzed again, coming up to twenty messages from his parents. Now his brother was on the trail.
Call me. I want to discuss options.
Cesar dismissed it and thumbed through the rest, marking them to trash.
He’d gone to the clinic with only an abrupt apology, but it had given him time to come to some decisions. On his return, he’d taken Diega aside and explained what had happened.
“We can’t marry before the paternity results are in. I’m sorry. Obviously I don’t remember doing it, but it’s within the realm of possibility that I slept with her. I have to go to London. See her and sort this out.”
The concept of having fathered a child was something he was holding at bay, finding it more than he could take in until the tests confirmed it. However, as much as he wanted to be suspicious of Sorcha’s claim, he couldn’t discount it. If it turned out he had a son, and he was already married to Diega…
Well, he didn’t know how he would react to being a father, but he knew in his gut he didn’t want to be married to another woman while he processed something like that.
Disturbingly, Diega hadn’t been terribly shocked. She’d tried to talk him out of going. “Querido, this isn’t a deal-breaker for me. I knew that day that you had had an affair with her. We don’t have to put off the wedding because of it.”
That had taken him aback. “You said I came to ask if our marriage was really what you wanted,” he said. “That I gave you the chance to back out and you didn’t have any doubts.”
That was why she was calling herself his fiancée even though the banquet and formal announcement had never happened. He hadn’t questioned her claim that he’d gone to her for a final, private affirmation that she wanted to move forward. Given all the conflict he’d been feeling in recent months, he had easily seen himself driving out to Diega’s home days before they locked themselves into this arrangement, secretly hoping she would call it off.
This sudden new information, that he had confessed to having an affair and had “begged her forgiveness” for it, didn’t ring as true.
“She was planning to stay until we married,” Diega said. “You didn’t want me finding out at some awkward moment in your office, having doubts about your fidelity. I said I would prefer she wasn’t lingering in our lives through our engagement and you left to terminate her so we could start our life together without her presence clouding things.”
None of that sounded like him, especially the groveling. While he hadn’t planned to sleep with anyone else once he and Diega were engaged, he hadn’t expected either of them would apologize for anything they’d done previous to their union. Why then, would he have felt such a burning need to go to her after sleeping with Sorcha? Since when did he run from any woman’s bed? Lingering and keeping things friendly, leaving on good terms, was his signature move.
If he had stayed with Sorcha, he would remember that day.
Sitting in the parked car, he pinched the bridge of his nose, reminding himself to stop trying to go back in time and change what had happened. He needed to deal with the reality he faced.
But what was that reality?
If Diega had been so offended by his affair with Sorcha, why hadn’t that shone through when they’d spoken of it today? She’d been trying to placate him, encouraging him to believe their wedding could go ahead.
“I understand you might have to take certain measures if the baby proves to be yours, but none of that has to affect plans that have been in the works for years.”
Her tone had been persuasive, which set off all his inner lie detectors.
He just didn’t see himself sleeping with Sorcha after three years of anticipating it, then firing her within hours. He wouldn’t do that to her. Over the years, when he had contemplated becoming sexually involved with her, he’d expected it would put an end to her employment with him, but via a lengthy affair that involved cruising on his yacht. Perhaps a visit to his place in Majorca.
Despite entertaining that fantasy more or less daily, he hadn’t wanted to lose her at work. She was the best damned PA he’d ever had. So he’d fought his attraction and kept his hands off her for three long, interminable years.
It had been a delicate balance.
And with that much sexual tension built up, it was no surprise he had eagerly pounced if she had proved agreeable, but it didn’t make this situation any easier to understand or navigate.
Especially when his phone was blowing up with messages from his family that he didn’t have to cancel his wedding.
Damn it, it was done. Perhaps too summarily, and with too much relief, but it was done.
Pocketing keys and phone, he left the car and strode single-mindedly into the hospital—and recoiled at the smell.
It was dinner hour. He’d had enough of that generic hospital-food aroma while recovering from his crash, but determination to get to the bottom of things propelled him through his repulsion to ask for Sorcha’s room number.
Seconds later he took the stairs in swift leaps, paced quickly down the hall, had to identify himself to a guard—what the hell was that?—and finally pushed through her door.
To find her sleeping.
The rush of adrenaline that had been coursing through his arteries since he’d taken the call from the hospital pooled into a full body burn. It wasn’t so much the angelic look of her that brought him up short, although that had always fascinated him when she’d fallen asleep on planes and curled up in break rooms. She wasn’t wearing makeup, which was an oddly vulnerable look for her, blond lashes and brows barely visible, lips a pale pink, translucent skin the color of freshly poured cream.
No, the intravenous tube attached to her wrist and the wheelchair next to the bed stunned him. A prickling uneasiness stung his back and gut and limbs.
He had visited a woman in hospital after childbirth exactly once: when his sister had been born. His mother had sat on the bed looking as flawless as she had on every other occasion of his life. His six-year-old brain hadn’t computed that the baby in the tiny bed on wheels beside her would turn into a child like himself. The room had smelled of flowers and he had not been allowed to take one of the colorful balloons suspended above them. They were just for looks. His parents had been as calmly satisfied as they were capable of being, having produced a third child as scheduled and without setbacks.
There was no baby in Sorcha’s clinically barren room, however. No flowers. No balloons.
His heart lurched. He stepped closer to read the labels on the IV bags, one saline, the other an antibiotic. A breast pump had been unpacked from its box and the instructions left on her food tray. She’d been given consommé and gelatin for dinner. Liquids after surgery, he distantly computed, tempted to brush that strand of blond hair from where it slashed in stark contrast across the shadow beneath her eye.
Sorcha had had a baby.
Despite all that had happened, his brain was still trying to absorb that much and couldn’t make sense of the rest. Paternity test? Him? A father?
Three years ago, she had landed her position as his PA with a claim that should have made his fathering her baby impossible.
He’d wanted her from the moment she’d entered his office wearing a pencil skirt and a fitted jacket, both moving like a caress on her slender curves as she walked toward him. She’d had just enough of her throat exposed to avoid being either prudish or inviting. Her blond hair had been held in a simple clip at her nape, her makeup subtly highlighting her pure features. Her smile had only faltered for one blink before it became pleasant and confident. She’d shaken his hand as though they were equals, smoothly pretending her tiny start of sexual awareness hadn’t happened.
He’d seen it, however. After a lifetime of always seeing it, he was far more surprised if a glimmer of attraction didn’t happen in a woman’s face. He was marginally surprised that Sorcha suppressed and set aside her response so well. In his experience, women were either disconcerted by his male energy and became flustered, or quickly tried to find an answering reaction in him by flirting and growing supple with their body language.
Adept at compartmentalizing his own rise of attraction, particularly in the workplace, he’d taken her hand and invited her to sit, ignoring the sizzle in his blood. But the fact it was there, and so strong, had him deciding against her before she’d bent her narrow waist and pressed her delightfully flared hips into the leather of the interview chair. As much as he preferred his surroundings to be aesthetically pleasing, he’d learned beautiful women could be a detriment in the office, creating politics and causing colleagues to behave badly.
He’d gone through the process of listening to her pitch, however, since he’d promised he would, and she had captured his attention with her wrap-up.
“Finally, I have a solution to a problem that has impacted your productivity for several years.”
“What problem is that?” he’d asked with forced patience, thinking drily, Dazzle me. He knew all the challenges he faced as he expanded from running his own chemical engineering firm into heading the Montero conglomerate. He’d already made plans for every single pothole in the road.
“You’ve been running through personal assistants at three and four a year,” she said matter-of-factly. “Stability at your base will be paramount as you pick up and run with all your added responsibilities. I’m prepared to offer you a five-year commitment and a promise that I won’t sleep with you.”
He’d leaned into the backrest of his executive chair to take a fresh assessment of the admittedly competent PA from his father’s London office whose brazenness was astonishing. He incinerated powerful men in seconds with this battle-ready stare, but if she was shaking under its laser heat, she was remarkably good at maintaining her demeanor.
“Please take that as a statement of my suitability, not a challenge,” she added with a tight smile.
“‘Excellent communication skills’ also means knowing what not to say, Ms. Kelly.” He flicked his we’re-done glance from her to the door and tapped his keyboard to bring up the next applicant’s file.
“Whether you actually slept with your PAs isn’t the issue. The perception that you do is an image problem and will persist if you hire one of my older, male competitors.” She thumbed toward the roomful of hopefuls beyond his office door. “Hire me, and I’ll actively put rumors to rest. Furthermore, I won’t throw myself at you or pitch a jealous fit at having to pamper the women who are in your life. I won’t hit on them, either. Or on any of your associates.”
She was well-informed. The previous male assistants he’d tried had done exactly that, offering “consolation” to the women he’d broken off with. The married women hadn’t been able to keep up with the demands of his travel schedule while the one matronly woman he’d tried had brought a lot of judgment with her. The rest had been a mix of what Sorcha had just described: women given to flirting or openly inviting him or his fellow executives into their beds, searching for a more comfortable situation than working for a living. Even if they hadn’t gone that far, they’d too often grown possessive and resentful of his dates.
As for sleeping with any of his PAs, it had happened once in his early years, before he had realized such mistakes could leave him with exactly what Sorcha had just called it: an image problem.
She hadn’t won him over that quickly, however.
“I might be inclined to accept your word, Ms. Kelly, if you hadn’t slept your way into being granted this interview.” Barton Angsley, the middle-aged CEO running the London office, had given her a very glowing reference and pressed hard for her to be considered for this promotion. Despite her solid qualifications, this was an enormous step up in salary and responsibility.
“I don’t sleep with anyone to advance my career, Señor Montero. I don’t have to,” she dismissed without batting an eye.
He had to admit she was solid under pressure.
“Angsley is taking a stress leave because he’s in the middle of an ugly divorce. Infidelity is usually the source of that kind of ugliness, Ms. Kelly. Did you threaten to give his wife the details? Is that why he’s so eager to send you to Spain?”
“I don’t talk about my employer, ever.” Her face became a haughty mask. “As evidenced by the fact you only found out about his divorce when he requested his leave and asked you to interview me. You’ll recall that he said they’d been in trouble for nearly a year. I was in the room when he was speaking to you or I wouldn’t repeat that much.”
Perhaps she’d covered up Angsley’s infidelity. Maybe that’s why he was so eager to recommend her. Maybe she’d covered his job. Cesar recalled a brief comment by his father, as they were discussing possible replacements for Angsley, that the man’s work had been exemplary the last few months, despite his personal issues.
Sorcha could be using that as a lever, but she didn’t seem prepared to throw her employer under a bus for any reason, even to advance herself.
He’d closed their interview with an assurance that he would give her application due consideration, which had been a lie. He’d had no intention of hiring her, but as her older, male competitors had failed to impress him, he’d found himself thinking about her. Sorcha was the kind of woman he wined and dined. He didn’t need the distraction of sexual attraction as he began taking on the role he’d been working toward all his life.
When the time came to make his final decision, however, he’d found himself placing a fresh call to Angsley. He’d learned she had not only rescued some important deadlines on Angsley’s last project, avoiding millions in overruns, but she’d also put in her notice once she realized Angsley was using her to cover his cheating.
A few minutes later, he’d found himself dialing her number. “I understand you’ve been asked to stay on to transition Angsley’s replacement, but are working out your notice anyway. Frankly, I would expect more loyalty from an employee seeking to climb our corporate ladder.”
A surprised pause, then she said, “Pay me what the position earns and I’d be happy to show his replacement how to do his job. Frankly, given the loyalty I have demonstrated, I’d expect not to be overlooked for a promotion just because I’m a woman.”
Astute, tough, competent, devoted. Beautiful.
“Five years, no sex,” he heard himself say.
“Not with you,” she confirmed.
“You’re underestimating your workload if you think you’ll have time for sex with anyone, Ms. Kelly. Be here Monday.”
So he found her attractive, he’d mentally scoffed. He knew how to keep his hands to himself. Nothing would happen between them.
A tickle on her cheek pulled Sorcha from sleep. She brushed at it, bumping against a warm hand that moved away as she opened her eyes.
A sensation of falling hit her, like the mattress was gone and she was falling, falling, falling into an abyss.
While his aqua eyes stayed on her, like he was falling with her as she plummeted, a bird of prey pursuing her, taking his time about snatching her out of the air, letting her feel the tension between temporary avoidance and anticipated capture.
She had expected, if she ever saw him again, that it would be a sweet dawn of sunlit warmth, angels singing and flowers opening. There was none of that. Oh, she was happy, so happy to see him well and strong and looking as fit and commanding as ever. She wanted to smile.
But this man was far too impactful for something so fairy-tale and romantic as merely “happy” feelings. He was a manifestation of a crash of thunder and a streak of lightning, his wide forehead and dark brows stern over those intense eyes that always met hers with such force. His cheeks wore his customary groomed stubble, framing an upper lip that was whimsically drawn and a thickly drawn lower one that had been a sensual delight to suck.
Sex. Oh, this man oozed sex.
She automatically closed her eyes, trying to fight the swell of attraction that lit in her nerves, firing through her system, but it had been far easier to control this response in those three years when she hadn’t known how he smelled and tasted. The pattern of hair on his chest flashed into her mind’s eye, arrowing a path down his sculpted abdomen to the turgid organ that had speared out shamelessly, thighs tense as he’d stood over her.
Then he’d covered her, powerful arms gathering her beneath his heat as he’d thrust deep, that erotic mouth making love to hers—
“Sorcha.” Even his voice made love to her all over again, suffusing her with remembered pleasure.
I’m not ready for this!
She looked through her lashes at him, trying to form some defenses against his effect while searching his expression for the languid, satisfied, tender man who’d kissed her before she’d snuggled against his nudity and fallen asleep.
She closed her eyes again, telling herself she’d fallen asleep in Valencia, had a long, fraught dream, and was now waking to…
She opened her eyes to a gaze that had grown steely, absent of humor or warmth. His jaw was clenched. They weren’t even back to his customary good-morning, let’s-get-started, businesslike demeanor. This was the man who had dismissed the idea of hiring her at all before he’d even shaken her hand.
“Hello, Cesar,” she managed to say, voice husked by sleep and emotion. “It’s good to see you’ve recovered.”
“I assumed you expected the worst, given you quit before your contract was up.”
A strangled laugh cut her throat, but she was grateful to him for going on the attack. Nothing gave her the ire to fight like being accused of behaving with anything less than integrity.
“I gave you my reasons and you accepted them,” she said, reaching for the button to bring up her bed, then wincing as her abdomen protested. She fought not sliding into the footboard as the mattress rose behind her and used one hand to keep the blanket over her chest. “Do you really not remember that week?”
His expression flattened, like a visor had come down to disguise his thoughts and feelings. She had spent three years earning his trust and wasn’t used to being shut out like that. Not anymore.
“No. I don’t.” And he hated it. That much she could tell as she searched his expression.
She didn’t know if she was relieved or crushed. The idea that he might remember their intimacy and hadn’t bothered to call had tortured her at her lowest points. His not remembering exonerated him to some extent, but it told her the closeness she’d felt, the connection, was all in her mind. Her memories. As far as he was concerned, they’d never progressed past the incidental touch of fingertips when passing a pen back and forth.
And despite spending way too much time running through the million potential conversations she would have if she ever met him again, she didn’t know how to proceed. Especially when, in all of her imagined scenarios, she had at least washed her hair and worn real clothes.
“Are you recovered otherwise?” she asked.
“Completely. What was this reason you gave me for quitting?” he asked with brisk aggression, like his patience had been tested too long. “That you were pregnant?”
She flashed a glance upward. “How would that be possible?” He’d gotten her pregnant after she put in her notice.
“I’m no midwife, but it’s been eight months since my accident, not nine. You were dating that artist. Is it his?”
Three dates with the painter nearly two years ago, thanks very much to her work schedule, and he still thought it was a thing.
“I went into labor early.” She shifted to alleviate the pain in her torso. It was coming from his reaction, though, not her recent surgery. His lack of reaction. She’d always thought there was a hint of attraction on his side. He’d said that day that he’d always felt some, but maybe that had been a line.
This was too incredible, not just having to convince a man that he was a father, but that they had had the sex that conceived his son.
“I explained my reasons for quitting and then, um, we slept together. You really don’t remember that day?” she persisted.
He stood with his arms folded and his gaze never wavering, but revealed a barely perceptible flinch. “No.”
The way he was looking at her, like he was waiting for her to expound on the slept-together details made the pain squeezing her lungs rise to pinch her cheeks. A mix of indignation and agony and plain old shyness burned her alive.
She glanced at the clock, recalling that the nurse had said she’d wake her when Enrique needed to be fed, but that they wouldn’t let him go more than four hours. It had been three since he’d last been placed in the incubator.
“When I committed to five years, I didn’t know you’d be marrying before that.”
“Well, as I explained that day…” Oh, that day had been bittersweet, starting with their customary champagne toast to a project completed. She always loved that time. They so rarely relaxed together, but that was typically when they were both in good spirits. A real conversation about personal things might arise. She always felt close to him, then. Valued.
She cleared her throat.
“I realize one of the conditions of your taking over from your father was that you would marry the woman your parents chose for you. I just didn’t realize, when you hired me, how the timing would work. That you would get engaged before the five years of transitioning into the presidency were up.”
“So you gave notice because I was getting engaged. What did you think was going to happen between us, Sorcha?”
“And yet I’ve been named the father of your newborn. Keep talking.”
Pity he’d lost a week’s worth of memories instead of that habit of demanding his time not be wasted.
She dragged her gaze off his folded arms and the line of his shoulders. His nostrils were flared. He never lost his temper, but that contained anger was worse. She knew him. She knew with a roiling dread in her belly exactly how much he hated learning of any sort of perfidy. Keeping her pregnancy from him had been a massive act of self-preservation, but there was no way to protect herself now.
“Wives are different from girlfriends.” She licked her lips, aware that his sharp gaze followed the action. An internal flutter started up under his attention, but she ignored it. “I wanted to work for you, not her.”
“How were you working for her?”
“Little things.” She shrugged. “If she wanted tickets for the theater, she asked me to buy them.”
“That happened once! You bought them for me all the time.”
“Exactly. For you.”
He narrowed his eyes. “So when you told me in your interview that you would never become possessive, that was a lie?”
“I wasn’t being possessive,” she insisted. Okay, she’d been a little bit possessive. Maybe. “It wasn’t just buying the tickets. It meant I was expected to put that event into your schedule regardless of anything else you might have planned.”
“You rearranged my calendar a hundred times a day anyway. Did you need a raise for this extra responsibility?” That was pretty much what he’d said that day, right down to the facetious tone.
“Changing your timetable on her instruction is not a responsibility. It’s playing politics. She was the one being possessive, showing me that she had the power to direct me, which tells me she saw me as a threat. So I chose to remove myself.”
“Odd that she would feel threatened, when you, apparently, let our relationship blur into personal?”
“I didn’t sleep with you to get at her, if that’s what you’re suggesting! It just happened. Is that so hard to believe?”
“No,” he said with clipped firmness and a hint of self-condemnation.
Her question was supposed to be a knock back, but his response, and the way their gazes locked, kept them firmly in the center of the ring. She could feel him trying to dig past her defensiveness to the truth, trying to see exactly how their lovemaking had happened.
Naked and earthy and, in her case, complete abandonment to something that had been building for years.
Her layers of composure began falling away like petals off a rose. A fresh wave of heat rose from her chest, up her throat, into her cheeks. His gaze slid down, scanning like an X-ray, trying to see not through fabric, but through time. He was trying to remember what she looked like, nude and flushed with desire, then pink with recent climax and supreme satisfaction.
The night nurse came in, making them both jerk guiltily.
“Hello,” she said cheerily, unaware of the thick sexual tension. “Are you the father? I hope you have identification. The guard at the nursery door will need it. We have strict orders to be vigilant with your two sons.”
“Two?” Cesar snapped his head around.
Sorcha caught back a laugh.
“Just one,” she assured him. “She means Octavia and I. Our sons. The mix-up.”
His brows crashed together. “Yes. Explain that.”
“Talk while you walk.” The nurse brushed him aside so she could assist Sorcha from the bed. “No limo service this time. Dr. Reynolds wants you moving.”
Cesar stepped to her other side as she struggled off the edge of the bed.
He reached to flick her gown down her bare thighs before she could, telling her his gaze had been on her legs.
This was such a peculiar situation. She’d slept with him in her mind long before she’d done it in real life, yet the experience remained only in her mind. He didn’t share it.
But he brought her shaky grip to his arm to steady her as she stood, acting like intimacy between them was established. She licked her lips, stealing a wary look up at him.
His expression was hard and fierce, impossible to interpret, but when had he ever been easy to read? He was capable of charm, had a dry sense of humor and was incredibly quick to understand almost anything. This situation, however, defied understanding. No wonder he’d retreated to his most arrogantly remote demeanor.
“I was planning to be home when I delivered,” Sorcha explained. “But I went into labor early and the cord was in the wrong place. His blood supply would have been cut off if I delivered naturally.”
She didn’t have a choice about leaning on him. The nurse moved ahead to hold the door into the hall, leaving Sorcha to shuffle from the room by clinging to Cesar’s warmth, surrounded in the nostalgic scent of his aftershave.
“They did an emergency C-section and there was a mix-up. Octavia and I knew right away they’d handed us the wrong newborns, but no one believed us. Although…”
She eyed the guards—plural—at the nursery door. One for each baby.
“I guess they believe now that something happened. They’re running the DNA tests to confirm it.”
“I didn’t believe it when I came on shift,” the nurse said, tagging her card against the reader to let them into the nursery. “We’re all waiting on the results. A mix-up should be impossible.”
Sorcha glanced at Cesar to see his mouth tighten again. As the door opened, she held back to let Cesar go in first, asking, “Do you, um, want to see him?”
“Oh, yes,” he said darkly, flashing his passport at one of the guards. “If I have a son, I definitely want to see him.”
Octavia glanced up from where she was feeding Lorenzo as Cesar swept in. Sorcha only managed a weak, fleeting smile of greeting, too caught up in watching Cesar’s reaction to his first sight of Enrique.
Love him, she silently begged.
Cesar stared at the baby inside the dome, stirring and making noises like a fledgling bird. He flashed back again to the memory of his sister, after his mother had brought her home. He had a distinct memory of going in search of his mother to tell her “the baby is crying.”
“Yes, they do that,” she’d responded. “The nanny will take care of it.”
It. With a lifetime of observation behind him, Cesar knew how detached both his parents were from each other and their children. Their union had been a business decision, their conception of heirs a legacy project. On his mother’s side, titles and position had to be maintained. His father required sons to run the corporation while he moved into politics. Their daughter was a valuable asset they would leverage into the right position when it came along.
Cesar would swear on a stack of bibles that their dispassion hadn’t harmed him. When he’d gone to boarding school, there’d been no homesickness. He’d spoken to his parents exactly as often as he had while sleeping in his own bedroom. As an adult, there were never disagreements, only “further discussion.” There was absolutely nothing wrong with the way he’d been raised, or with his parents’ expectation that he would be equally practical in his choice of wife and life goals.
Those goals had included a type of payback to Diega’s family for stabilizing his situation when the espionage had happened. That mistake still haunted him, making him reluctant to accept he’d made another—one that would keep him from making good on a promise.
Was he a father? He found himself studying Sorcha as a mother. She awkwardly lowered herself into a rocking chair, sighing like she’d run a marathon. Her face was pale, attesting to her weakness, but she smiled as the nurse gathered up the fussing infant and brought him to her.
She greeted the boy with a sultry laugh that tightened Cesar’s abs and raised the hairs on the back of his neck. It was like hearing a song you’d first heard on a summer day, taking you back to a time when the weather was perfect and school was out and you had nothing to do for the afternoon.
“You poor thing,” she murmured, kissing her baby’s cheek, nuzzling him with the sort of affection one saw on nature shows, but that had never been present in his own childhood.
Her easy show of love affected him in a way he couldn’t even describe—not sexual, not intellectual. He was fascinated, not sad or happy, but something that teetered between the two emotions.
“Did you miss me? I missed you, too.” As her gaze came up, Cesar thought for a stunned moment she was speaking to him. “I named him Enrique,” she said, eyes bottomless, lips pink and shiny.
His middle name.
His equilibrium was further thrown off and his palms grew clammy. He wanted to clear his throat, but thought it would seem too revealing. He was suddenly aware of something his sister, the biologist, occasionally said in a dry, disparaging tone to their father. Emotions are called feelings because you feel them.
He shook his head, certain his father felt very little. His mother might show some warmth toward an old friend or pout over a favorite vase that toppled and broke, but his father never descended to sentimentality.
He was just like his father. Wasn’t he?
“Do you want to hold him?” Sorcha asked huskily.
“Don’t you have to feed him?” It was a reflexive response, a quick defense against revealing that he was suffering something he rarely experienced: a profound sense of inadequacy.
He didn’t know how to hold a baby. When he had thought about having children, it had always been a distant goal, a step in the process, something he would largely delegate to his wife and whatever staff she hired.
To take care of it.
He might as well have slapped Sorcha. She paled and set her chin. “Would you turn around, please?” she asked stiffly.
Because she needed to bare her breast.
If they’d slept together, he’d already seen them, hadn’t he?
He turned away, rattled.
He searched his mind for a confirmation of the vision he had conjured thousands of times, when he’d snuck a lecherous peek at her chest. A picture manifested in his mind’s eye of creamy swells and taut pink nipples the same shade as her lips. Was that really what she looked like? Or was it just his same detailed fantasy?
He wanted to look, damn it! He wanted to have something, anything, some sign of hope that the lost week was coming back to him. He was a strong, healthy, powerful man who relied on himself. To have his own mind let him down… It was the most gallingly helpless feeling he’d ever experienced. And the doctors didn’t expect he’d ever retrieve those memories.
And that thought might have been tolerable if it had been an ordinary week, but no. He had fathered a child during that blackout.
The other mother, Octavia, came to her feet, faltered briefly, then faced them.
“I should tell you… My husband told me that his cousin switched the baby tags during the births. There’s…” She shrugged, distress moving over her pretty face as she looked to Sorcha before she glanced back at Cesar with apology. “Jealousy, I guess. Rivalry. The police are involved. I’m sure you’ll be asked to make statements. I’m so sorry.”
Sorcha, being Sorcha, offered an assurance that it wasn’t Octavia’s fault.
Cesar couldn’t believe what a soft touch she was. Suppose Enrique had gone home with the wrong mother? His child would have been raised by strangers.
It was a chilling thought, one that disconcerted him because deep fury followed it. No one was allowed to steal from him and the idea he might have lost something as precious as his son…
Was Enrique his son?
Was he really wishing it to be true? A tide of…something was rising in him.
Octavia moved to tuck her baby into his bed, saying a sleepy good-night as she shuffled out, hand firm on her nurse’s arm.
Oddly drawn, Cesar went to the other baby and stared at him, not sure what he was looking for. Babies all looked the same, didn’t they?
He wanted another look at the boy Sorcha held. Would he find something of himself in his features? She’d draped a blanket over her shoulder, modestly shielding herself as she nursed.
“When do the DNA results come?” he asked her.
The nurse who had remained in the room looked up from her workstation. “They’ve rushed the tests. Early next week, we hope.”
Cesar clashed his gaze into Sorcha’s unreadable one.
He wouldn’t believe he’d fathered her baby until the test confirmed it, but he’d never known Sorcha to lie. Not about important things. Not when it came to her family.
The only time she had blown off an afternoon of work, her young niece had gone missing for a few hours. The seven-year-old had climbed onto a wrong bus. Sorcha had been a pale, shaking mess until the little girl had called home from a village two hours from her own.
It had been a disturbing few hours, watching his normally reliable PA fall apart. He hadn’t liked it. Not because she’d been inconsolable. She hadn’t. She’d gone into a near catatonic state, deeply withdrawn, white as a ghost, only looking at him to ask, “What if…?” He hadn’t had answers and he’d been powerless to resolve the issue. He typically mollified women with gifts and compliments and sexual pleasure. The best he’d been able to do was attempt to fly her home.
They’d received the call that the girl was safe before they’d reached the airstrip. Sorcha had hugged him, only then crying a few choked tears, then quickly apologizing and mopping up. Within twenty minutes, they’d been back to normal, working productively, pretending the embrace hadn’t happened, but he’d never forgotten the intensity of her emotions.
Or the feel of her pressed to his front, her shoulder so small under his hand, her blue jacket thin enough he’d felt the suppleness of her back. She didn’t wear perfume. Her scent was subtle, like those complex notes he used to try to identify with his father’s vintner. Crushed flower petals? A hint of anise?
His mind had turned to sex in that moment of holding her, not that making love to her was so very far from his private bank of fantasies from the moment he saw her in the morning to when he fell asleep at night. From her interview onward, he had accepted that he wanted her and couldn’t have her, so he’d briefly returned her embrace, then set her away.
But not the next time he’d held her, apparently.
He sighed impatiently, wanting to believe that if Sorcha had put his name down as the baby’s father for any reason beyond the truth, it was a damned good one. Not just money, either, no matter the fortune he had. Because if it was his fortune she was after, she wouldn’t have kept the baby a secret right up until the moment he was about to marry someone else.
“Why,” he said aloud, moving over to her and switching to Valencian so they could speak with some privacy. “If I’m his father, why did I find out like this? Why didn’t you say something sooner? Why not stay and force me to face it? Why not ask me for support?”
She’d always been good under pressure, rarely revealing her thoughts or feelings, but a vulnerable anger flashed across her expression.
“I tried to see you. I asked your father a dozen times, went to the hospital, but I wasn’t allowed up.” Her face hardened. “It was a difficult time for your family and you were in very bad shape. I wanted to be compassionate about that. When I heard you’d lost your memory…” She searched his gaze as though still having trouble believing it.
So did he. He flinched, angered all over again at his own fallibility. He turned away.
“The circumstances weren’t ideal,” she continued behind him. “You were engaged to Diega even if it wasn’t official—” She sighed. “We talked a lot that day and you confided your reservations about marrying. I thought it meant you were deciding against going through with it or I never would have…”
He glanced back to see her dip her head, smoothing her brow with a troubled finger.
He strained his brain, searching for what he might have said to her. Yes, he’d had reservations about his engagement from the time he was twenty and his mother identified Diega as a suitable future wife, but his parents had a perfectly civil, successful arrangement. This was how his family conducted themselves. You didn’t achieve long-term professional success by chasing “love.” You built a satisfying environment by partnering with people of similar minds and means. He had resolved himself to doing his part in expanding the family’s standing and fortune.
And doing right by Diega’s family.
So he had ignored the feeling in the pit of his gut and approved the plan to engage himself when his mother had pressed him.
Privately he acknowledged that in those weeks leading up to the party, he had begun to feel like the walls were closing in. He wasn’t sure why he would have opened up to Sorcha about it, though. Postcoital lowered defenses or not, that was a more personal thing than he would typically confide even to her.
“I wanted to tell you first, obviously,” she said with a despairing sigh. “But I couldn’t get in to see you. What was my alternative? Tell your father? He would have thought, at best, that I’d done this on purpose. I didn’t, Cesar. We used a condom. It failed. I can see you barely believe me. Your father wouldn’t have, either.” She looked away, cheekbones flushed with indignation while sadness tugged at the corners of her pretty mouth.
What had it felt like to kiss her? As good as he’d always imagined?
His hand closed into a fist and a fresh wave of feeling cheated gripped him.
“I didn’t expect you could believe me, if the memory was gone. In every scenario, when I imagined convincing you or anyone else that Enrique was yours, I saw myself being paid off. I don’t want your money.” Her eyes met his, as steady and truthful as he’d ever seen her. “The only reason I gave your name on the forms here was because it was an emergency. If I hadn’t made it through the surgery, I didn’t want my mother burdened with the cost of raising Enrique. At that point, yes, I would hope you would open your wallet.”
A chill moved through him at her saying “hadn’t made it through.” He brushed aside the thought of such a disturbing outcome and latched onto her other shocking admission. “So you never would have told me?”
She looked down, chewing the inside of her lip. “Never is a long time.” Her gaze flicked up uncertainly. “Enrique might have had questions. I was going to wait and see.”
He was flabbergasted.
He reminded himself the boy might not be his, but damn it, he’d spent three years entrusting Sorcha with confidential information, decisions that affected stock prices, personal opinions that he hadn’t shared with anyone else… Aside from leaving him when he’d been at his lowest point, she’d never let him down. From their first meeting, she’d been disarmingly frank, in fact.
So had he. She knew exactly how he felt about people who lied and kept secrets and messed with his scrupulously ordered life.
“I’m not ‘waiting to see,’” he growled, aware that despite a lack of hard evidence he did believe her. “I called off my wedding.”
She took that in with a stunned expression, then recovered with a shaken little shrug. “Well, I didn’t ask you to. I don’t have designs on you myself, if that’s what you’re worried about.” She made the claim firmly enough, but her lashes trembled as she flicked another look at him.
Like she was trying not to betray that, on some level, she’d entertained the idea.
That didn’t surprise him. He was a rich, titled, healthy man. All women took his measure and often made a play. According to his sister, it was basic biology. He had the kind of power and resources that appealed to fertile women looking for a mate to provide for her young.
And that was what Sorcha ought to expect if he was indeed the father of her child.
“Really,” he said skeptically, folding his arms, taken aback, but when had Sorcha not surprised him?
“Really,” she affirmed. “If you want to make provisions for your son, that’s your choice, but I will proceed as if I’ll be supporting Enrique alone.”
Of course he would support his child. That wasn’t even something he had to consciously decide, it was such a no-brainer. What kind of man failed to provide the basics of life to his offspring?
The natural progression of that thought—how he would provide for Enrique—was a more complex decision he was holding off contemplating.
All his life, he’d had a perfect defense against ambitious women: he was tied to an arranged marriage of his parents’ choosing. Now, for the first time in his life, he was free of that encumbrance, yet morally bound to at least consider marriage to Sorcha.
If Enrique was his.
That odd rush of longing for the boy to be his rose again, stronger this time, bunching his muscles with anticipation as though he could physically fight for the outcome he wanted.
“I wasn’t trying to trap you that day,” Sorcha continued, brow wrinkling. “We had some champagne and talked about personal things. I felt—” She flushed and swallowed, but forced her chin up to meet his gaze with defiance. “I felt like we were friends. That’s why I slept with you.” Her expression darkened to one of hurt and betrayal. “But when I came to the hospital to see you, Diega told me you called me your last hurrah.”
Sorcha’s gaze took a scathing sweep that sliced across him. Slash, slash, slash, like Zorro’s sword dissecting him into pieces.
“She said I had become a challenge. A conquest—her word—that you couldn’t stand to let get away. I’ve been so comforted all these months, Cesar, knowing you had a good laugh at my expense right before you nearly died.”