The Maid’s Spanish Secret
Part of the Wrong Heirs Duet
“You will come to Spain. You will marry me…”
He will claim his heir
For sweet maid Poppy Harris, her one and only passionate experience was scorching and absolutely forbidden. She shouldn’t have succumbed to Spanish aristocrat Rico Montero’s tantalizing seduction, but his touch was all consuming…and had a nine-month consequence! Poppy believes they could never be anything more. Until Rico appears on her doorstep demanding his hidden daughter—and determined to make Poppy his wife!
Enjoy this intensely dramatic marriage of convenience!
The Maid’s Spanish Secret
Part of the
Wrong Heirs Duet
She had always imagined that if this much money showed up on her doorstep, it would be with an oversize check and a television crew.
— Poppy, The Maid's Spanish Secret
Shortly after my baby swap duet came out, I began getting inquiries about Rico, the brother of Cesar from The Consequence He Must Claim. Would he have his own story?
I wanted him to. Rico lurked around the back of my mind, waiting for the right heroine to show up. Also, even though he came from the same emotionally sterile family that made Cesar such a remote man, Rico didn’t have any unresolved anger that needed fifty thousand words and the love of his life to get over.
Until I realized that he dutifully married and was betrayed. In fact, everyone thinks he suffered a terrible loss when what he’s actually doing is protecting a terrible secret. He’s trying to shake that bitterness when he discovers he has a daughter by a very brief affair with his mother’s former housemaid.
I hope you love Rico’s journey falling for Poppy. Look for the final Montero sibling, Pia, which should come out late 2019 or early 2020.
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The Maid’s Spanish Secret
Rico Montero arrived at his brother’s villa, two hours up the coast from Valencia, in seventy-three minutes. He’d been feeling cooped up in his penthouse, hungry for air. He had pulled his GTA Spano out of storage and tried to escape his own dark mood, not realizing the direction he took until he was pulled over for speeding.
Recognizing where he was, he told the officer he was on his way to see his brother—a means of name-dropping the entire family. The ploy had gotten him out of having his license suspended, but he still had to pay a fine.
Since he was literally in the neighborhood, he decided not to compound his crimes by lying. He rolled his way through Cesar’s vineyard to the modern home sprawled against a hillside.
He told himself he didn’t miss the vineyard he had owned with pride for nearly a decade—long before his brother had decided he had an interest in grapes and winemaking. Rico’s fascination with the process had dried up along with his interest in life in general. Selling that property had been a clean break from a time he loathed to dwell upon.
It’s been eighteen months, his mother had said over lunch yesterday. Time to turn our attention to the future.
She had said something similar three months ago and he had dodged it. This time, he sat there and took the bullet. Of course. Who did you have in mind?
He had left thinking, Go ahead and find me another scheming, adulterous bride. But he hadn’t said it aloud. He had promised to carry that secret to his grave.
He swore and jammed the car into Park, then threw himself out of it, grimly aware he had completely failed to escape his dour mood.
“Rico!” His sister-in-law Sorcha opened the door before he had climbed the wide steps. She smiled with what looked like genuine pleasure and maybe a hint of relief.
“Mateo, look. Tío Rico has come to see you.” She spoke to the bawling toddler on her hip. “That’s a nice surprise, isn’t it?”
She wasn’t the flawlessly elegant beauty he was used to seeing on Cesar’s arm, more of a welcoming homemaker. Her jeans and peasant-style top were designer brands, but she wore minimal makeup and her blond hair was tied into a simple ponytail. Her frown at her unhappy son was tender and empathetic, not the least frazzled by his tantrum.
The deeply unhappy Mateo pointed toward the back of the house. “Ve, Papi.”
“He’s overdue for his nap.” Sorcha waved Rico in. “But he knows someone took someone else into the V-I-N-E-Y-A-R-D.”
“You’re speaking English and you still have to spell it out?” Rico experienced a glimmer of amusement.
“He’s picking it up so fast. Oh!” She caught Mateo as he reached out to Rico, nearly launching himself from her arms.
Rico caught him easily while Sorcha stammered, “I’m sorry.”
If Rico briefly winced in dismay, it was because of the look in Sorcha’s eyes. Far too close to pity, it contained sincere regret that her son was prevailing on him for something she thought too big and painful to ask.
It wasn’t. The favor he was doing for his former in-laws was a greater imposition, spiking far more deeply into a more complex knot of nerves. What Sorcha thought she knew about his marriage was the furthest thing from reality.
And what she read as pain and anger at fate was contempt and fury with himself for being a fool. He was steeped in bitterness, playing a role that was barely a version of the truth. A version that made a sensitive soul like Sorcha wear a poignant smile as she gazed on him holding his young nephew.
Mateo stopped crying, tears still on his cheeks.
“Ve, Papi?” he tried.
The tyke had been born mere weeks before Rico’s ill-fated marriage. Mateo was sturdy and stubborn and full of the drive that all the Montero males possessed. This was why he was giving his mother such a hard time. He knew what he wanted and a nap wouldn’t mollify him.
“We’ll discuss it,” he told the boy and glanced at Sorcha. “You should change,” he advised, unable to bear much more of that agonized happiness in her eyes.
“Why—? Ugh.” She noticed the spot where Mateo had rubbed his streaming face against her shoulder. “You’re okay?” she asked with concern.
“For God’s sake, Sorcha,” he muttered through clenched teeth.
He regretted his short temper immediately and quickly reined in his patience. His secret sat in him like a cancer, but he couldn’t let it provoke him into lashing out, certainly not at the nicest person in his family.
“I didn’t mean to speak so sharply,” he managed to say, gathering his composure as he brought his nephew to his shoulder. “We’re fine.”
“It’s okay, Rico.” She squeezed his arm. “I understand.”
No. She didn’t. But thankfully she disappeared, leaving him to have a man-to-man chat with Mateo, who hadn’t forgotten a damned thing. He gave it one more try, pointing and asking for Cesar, who had taken his older brother Enrique to speak to winemakers and pet cellar cats and generally have a barrel of a good time by anyone’s standards.
Mateo’s eyes were droopy, his cheeks red, very much worn out from his tantrum.
“I know what you’re going through,” he told the boy. “Better than you can imagine.”
Like Mateo, Rico was the younger brother to the future duque. He, too, occupied the unlit space beneath the long shadow of greatness cast by the heir. He, too, was expected to live an unblemished life so as not to tarnish the title he would never hold. Then there was the simple, fraternal rivalry of a brother being that few years older and moving into the next life stage. Envy was natural, not that Monteros were allowed to feel such things. Emotions were too much like pets, requiring regular feeding and liable to leave a mess on the floor.
Rico climbed the grand staircase to the bedroom that had been converted to a playroom for the boys, not dwelling on Cesar’s stellar fulfillment of his duty with two bright and healthy children, a beautiful home and a stunning, warmhearted wife.
“There are some realities that are not worth crying about,” he informed Mateo as they entered the room. “Your father told me that.” It was one of Rico’s earliest memories.
Cry all you want. They won’t care. Cesar had spoken with the voice of experience after Rico had been denied something he’d desperately wanted that he could no longer recollect.
Cesar had come to reason with him, perhaps because he was tired of having his playmate sent into solitary confinement. Reason was a family skill valued far more highly than passion. Reason was keeping him silent and carrying on today, maintaining order rather than allowing the chaos that would reign if the truth came out.
Doesn’t it make you mad that they won’t even listen? Rico had asked Cesar that long-ago day.
Yes. Cesar had been very mature for a boy of six or seven. But getting mad won’t change anything. You might as well accept it and think about something else.
Words Rico had learned to live by.
He was capable of basic compassion, however.
“I’ll always listen if you need to get something off your chest,” he told his nephew as he lowered them both into an armchair. “But sometimes there’s nothing to be done. It’s a hard fact of life, young man.”
Mateo wound down to sniffling whimpers. He decided to explore Rico’s empty chest pocket.
“Should we read a book?” Rico picked up the first picture book within reach. It was bilingual, with trains and dogs and bananas labeled in English and Spanish.
As he worked through the pages, he deliberately pitched his voice to an uninflected drone. The boy’s head on his chest grew heavier and heavier.
“Thank you,” Sorcha whispered when she peeked in.
Rico nodded and carried the sleeping boy to his crib. The nanny came in with the baby monitor.
Rico followed Sorcha down the stairs saying, “I’ll go find Cesar. If Mateo wakes, don’t tell him what a traitor I am.”
“Actually, I was going to invite you for dinner later this week. There’s something I want to talk to you about. Can we go into Cesar’s office?” Her brow pleated with concern.
Rico bit back a sigh, trying to hold on to the temper that immediately began to slip. “If this is about me remarrying, Mother has passed along your concerns.”
Your sister-in-law thinks it’s too soon, his mother had said yesterday, not asking him how he felt. She had merely implied that in Sorcha’s view, he was in a weakened state. His choice had been to confirm it or go along with his mother’s insistence on finding him a new wife.
“This is something else,” Sorcha murmured, closing the door and waving toward the sofa. “And my imagination could be running wild. I haven’t said anything to Cesar.”
She poured two glasses of the Irish whiskey she had turned Cesar on to drinking and brought one to where Rico stood.
“Really?” he drawled, wondering what she could possibly impart that would need to be absorbed with a bracing shot. He left the whiskey on the end table as they both sat.
“Please don’t be angry with me. I know I was overstepping, suggesting your mother hold off on pressing you to remarry, but I care about all of you.” She sat with her elbows on her thighs, leaning forward, hands clasped. “You may not be the most demonstrative family, but you are family. I will never stay silent if I think one of you needs…” Her mouth tightened.
“Sorcha.” He meticulously gathered his forbearance. “I’m fine.” And, before he had to suffer another swimming gaze of tormented sympathy, he added, “If I were in your shoes, I would understand why you think I’m not, but honestly, you have to stop worrying about me.”
“That’s never going to happen,” she said primly, which would have been endearing if he didn’t find it so frustratingly intrusive. “And there may be other factors to consider.” She sipped her drink and eyed him over it. Then sighed. “I feel like such a hypocrite.”
He lifted his brows. “Why? What’s going on?”
She frowned, set down her drink and picked up her phone, stared at it without turning it on. “Elsa, our nanny, showed me something that came up in her news feed.”
“Something compromising?” Sorcha would have taken up the concern with Cesar unless—Oh, hell. Had something gotten out from the coroner’s report? “Is this about Faustina?” His molars ground together on reflex.
“No! No, it’s not about her at all.” She touched her brow. “Elsa always comes with us when we have dinner at your mother’s. She’s acquainted with the maids there and follows some of them online.”
At the word maid a premonition danced in his periphery. He refused to reach for the drink, though. It would be a tell. Instinctively, he knew he had to maintain impassivity. He couldn’t tip his hand. Not before he knew exactly what was coming next.
“To be honest, I rarely check my social media accounts,” he said with a disinterested brush of non-existent lint from his knee. “Especially since Faustina passed. It’s very maudlin.”
“I suppose it would be.” Her expression grew pinched. She looked at the phone she held pressed between her palms. “But one way or another, I think you should be aware of this particular post.”
Biting her lips together, she touched her thumb to the sensor and the screen woke. She flicked to bring up a photo and held it out to him.
“On first glance, Elsa thought it was Mateo dressed up as a girl. That’s the only reason she took notice and showed me. She thought it was funny that it had given her a double take. I had to agree this particular photo offers a certain resemblance.”
Rico flicked a look at the toddler. He’d never seen Mateo in a pink sailor’s bib and hat, but the baby girl’s grin was very similar, minus a few teeth, to the one he had coaxed out of his nephew before the boy’s head had drooped against his chest.
“I actually keep my privacy settings locked down tight,” Sorcha said. “I’ve heard photos can be stolen and wind up in ads without permission. I thought that’s what had happened. Elsa assured me she never shares images of the boys with anyone but me or Cesar.”
The Montero fortune had been built on the development of chemicals and special alloys. Rico had learned early that certain substances, innocuous on their own, could become explosive when in proximity to one another.
Sorcha was pouring statements into beakers before him. A maid. A baby that looked like other children in the family.
He wouldn’t let those two pieces of information touch. Not yet.
“It’s said we all have a double.” His lifetime of suppressing emotion served him well. “It would seem you’ve found Mateo’s.”
“This is the only photo where she looks so much like him,” Sorcha murmured, taking back her phone. “I looked up the account. Her mother is a photographer.”
Photographer. One beaker began to tip into another.
“This is part of her portfolio for her home business. Her name is Poppy Harris. The mother, I mean. The baby is Lily.”
His abdomen tightened to brace for a kick. A sizzle resounded in his ears. Adrenaline made him want to reach for his drink, but he only lifted his hand to scratch his cheek—while his mind conjured the forest of lilies that had surrounded them in his mother’s solarium as he and Poppy had made love so impulsively.
“Do you…remember her?” Sorcha asked tentatively.
Skin scented like nectarines, lush corkscrews of curly red hair filling his hands as he consumed her crimson lips. He remembered the exact pitch of her joyful cries of release, the culmination of madness like he’d never known before or since.
And he remembered vividly the ticking of the clock on the mantel as he had sat in his mother’s parlor the next morning, an itchy fire in his blood driving him mad. He’d been on the verge of going to look for her because he couldn’t stop thinking about her.
Then Faustina had arrived, striking like dry lightning with sheepishly delivered news. Family obligation had crashed upon him afresh, pinning him under the weight of a wedding that had been called off, but now was back on. They would pretend the gap in the parade had never happened.
“Rico?” Sorcha prompted gently, dragging him back to the present. “I know this must be a shock.” And there was that infernal compassion again.
He swore, tired to his bones of people thinking he was mourning a baby he had already known wasn’t his. He was sorry for the loss of a life before it had had the chance to start. Of course, he was. But he wasn’t grieving with the infinite heartbreak of a parent losing a child. It hadn’t been his.
And given Faustina’s trickery, he was damned cynical about whether he had conceived this one.
“Why did you jump straight to suspecting she’s mine?” he asked baldly.
Sorcha was slightly taken aback. “Well, I’m not going to suspect my own husband, am I?” Her tone warned that he had better not, either. Her chin came up a notch. “You were living in your parents’ villa at the time. Frankly, your father doesn’t seem particularly passionate about any woman, young or old. You, however, were briefly unengaged.”
Rico had long suspected the success of his parents’ marriage could be attributed to both of them being fairly asexual and lacking in passion for anything beyond cool reason and the advancement of family interests.
Sorcha’s eyes grew big and soft and filled with that excruciating pity. “I’m not judging, Rico. I know how these things happen.”
“I bet you do.” He regretted it immediately. It wasn’t him. At least, it wasn’t the man he was beneath the layer of caustic fury he couldn’t seem to shed. Sorcha certainly didn’t deserve this ugly side of him. She was kind and sensitive and everything the rest of them didn’t know how to be.
She recoiled, rightly shocked that he would deliver such a belly blow. But she hadn’t risen above the scandal of secretly delivering his brother’s baby while Cesar had been engaged to someone else without possessing truckloads of resilience.
“I meant because my mother was my father’s maid when she conceived me.” Her voice was tight and strong, but there was such a wounded shadow in her gaze, he had to look away and reach for the drink she’d poured him.
He drained it, burning away the words that hovered on his tongue. Words he couldn’t speak because he was trying to spare Faustina’s parents some humiliation when they were already destroyed by the loss of their only child.
“I’ll assume if you’re lashing out, you believe it’s possible that little girl is yours. How she came about is your business, Rico, but don’t you ever accuse me of trapping Cesar into this marriage. I left, if you recall.” She stood, hot temper well lit, but honed by her marriage to a Montero into icy severity. “And so did Poppy. Maybe ask yourself why, if you’re such a prize, she doesn’t want anything to do with you. I have an idea, if you can’t figure it out for yourself.”
She stalked to the door and swung it open, inviting him to leave using nothing more than a head held high and an expression of frosty contempt that prickled his conscience through the thick shields of indifference he had been bricking into place since Faustina had been found.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” Rico ground out, mind reeling so badly as he stood, his head swam. “I was shooting the messenger.” With a missile launcher loaded with nuclear waste. “Tell Cesar what you’ve told me. I’ll let him punch me in the face for what I said to you.” He meant it.
She didn’t thaw. Not one iota. “Deal with the message. I have a stake in the outcome, as do my husband and sons.”
“Oh, I will,” he promised. “Immediately.”
Poppy Harris filled the freshly washed sippy cup with water only to have Lily ignore it and keep pointing at the shelf.
“You want a real cup, don’t you?”
Two weeks ago, Lily’s no-spill cup had gone missing from daycare. Poppy’s grandmother, being old-school, thought cups with closed lids and straws were silly. Back in her day, babies learned to drink from a proper cup.
Since she was pinching pennies, Poppy hadn’t bought a new one. She had spent days mopping dribbles instead, and she’d been so happy when the cup had reappeared today.
Unfortunately, Lily was a big girl now. She wanted an open cup. Thanks, Gran.
Poppy considered whether a meltdown right before dinner was worth the battle. She compromised by easing Lily’s grip off her pant leg and then sat her gently onto her bottom, unable to resist running affectionate fingertips through Lily’s fine red-gold curls. She handed her both the leakproof cup and an empty plastic tumbler. Hopefully that would keep her busy for a few minutes.
“I’m putting the biscuits in the oven, Gran,” Poppy called as she did it.
She scooped a small portion of leek-and-potato soup from the slow cooker into a shallow bowl. She had started the soup when she raced home on her lunch break to check on her grandmother. Every day felt like a flat-out run, but she didn’t complain. Things could be worse.
She set the bowl on the table so it would be cool enough for Lily to eat when they sat down.
“The fanciest car has just pulled in, Poppy,” her grandmother said in her quavering voice. Her evening game shows were on, but she preferred to watch the comings and goings beyond their front room window. “Is he one of your models needing a head shot? He’s very handsome.”
“What?” Poppy’s stomach dropped. It was completely instinctive and she made herself take a mental step back. There was no reason to believe it would be him.
Even so, she struggled to swallow a jagged lump that lodged in her suddenly arid throat. “Who—?”
The doorbell rang.
Poppy couldn’t move. She didn’t want to see. If it wasn’t Rico, she would be irrationally disappointed. If it was him…
She looked to her daughter, instantly petrified that he was here to claim her. What would he say? How could she stop him? She couldn’t.
It wasn’t him, she told herself. It was one of those prophets in a three-piece suit who hand-delivered pamphlets about the world being on the brink of annihilation.
Her world was fine, she reassured herself, still staring at the sprite who comprised the lion’s share of all that was important to her. Lily tipped her head back in an effort to drain water from an empty cup.
The bell rang again.
“Poppy?” her grandmother prompted, glancing her direction. “Will you answer?”
Mentally, Gran was sharp as a tack. Her vision and hearing never failed her. Osteoporosis, however, had impacted her mobility. Her bones were so fragile, Poppy had to be ever vigilant that Lily and her toys weren’t underfoot. Her gran would break a hip or worse if she ever stumbled.
There were a lot of things about this living arrangement that made it less than ideal, but both she and Gran were maintaining the status quo, kidding themselves that Gramps was only down at the hardware store and would be back any minute.
“Of course.” Poppy snapped out of her stasis and glanced over to be sure the gates on both doorways into the kitchen were closed. All the drawers and cupboards had locks except the one where the plastic dishes were kept. The mixing bowls were a favorite for being dragged out and nested, filled with toys and measuring cups, then dumped without ceremony.
“Keep an eye this way, Gran?” Poppy murmured as she stepped over the gate into the front room, then moved past her seated grandmother to the front door.
Her glance out the side window struck a dark brown bomber jacket over black jeans, but she knew that head, that back with the broad shoulders, that butt and long legs.
His arrival struck like a bus. Like a train that derailed her composure and rattled on for miles, piling one broken thought onto another.
OhGodohGodohGod… Breathe. All the way in, all the way out, she reminded herself. But she had always imagined that if this much money showed up on her doorstep, it would be with an oversize check and a television crew. Not him.
Rico pivoted from surveying her neighbor’s fence and the working grain elevator against the fading Saskatchewan sky. His profile was knife sharp, carved of titanium and godlike. A hint of shadow was coming in on his jaw, just enough to bend his angelic looks into the fallen kind.
“Poppy—?” her grandmother prompted, tone perplexed by the way she was acting. Or failing to.
How? How could he know? Poppy had no doubt that he did. There was absolutely no other reason for this man to be this far off the beaten track. He sure as hell wasn’t here to see her.
Blood searing with fight or flight, heart pounding, she opened the door.
The full force of his impact slammed through her. The hard angle of his chin, the stern cast of his mouth, his wide shoulders and long legs, and hands held in tense, almost fists.
His jaw hardened as he took her in through mirrored aviators. Their chrome finish was cold and steely. If he’d had a fresh haircut, it had been ruffled by the wind. His boots were alligator, his cologne nothing but crisp, snow-scented air and fuming suspicion.
Poppy lifted her chin and pretended her heart wasn’t whirling like a Prairie tornado in her chest.
“Can I help you?” she asked, exactly as she would if he had been a complete stranger.
His hand went to the doorframe. His nostrils twitched as he leaned into the space. “Really?” he asked in a tone of lethal warning.
“Who is it, Poppy?” her grandmother asked.
He stiffened slightly, as though surprised she wasn’t alone. Then his mouth curled with disparagement, waiting to see if she would lie.
Poppy swallowed, her entire body buzzing, but she held his gaze through those inscrutable glasses while she said in a strong voice, “Rico, Gran. The man I told you about. From Spain.”
There, she silently conveyed. What do you think of that?
It wasn’t wise to defy him. She knew that by the roil of threat in the pit of her stomach, but she had had to grow up damned fast in the last two years. She was not some naive traveler succumbing to a charmer who turned out to be a thief, or even the starry-eyed maid who had encouraged a philandering playboy to seduce her.
She was a grown woman who had learned how to face her problems head-on.
“Oh?” Gran’s tone gave the whole game away in one murmur. There was concern beneath her curiosity. Knowledge. It was less a blithe, isn’t that nice that your friend turned up. More an alarmed, Why is he here?
There was no hiding. None. Poppy might not be able to read this man’s eyes, but she read his body language. He wasn’t here to ask questions. He was here to confront.
Because he knew she’d had his baby.
Her eyes grew wet with panic, but through her shock, she reacted to seeing her lover, her first and only lover twenty months after they had conceived their daughter. She had thought her brief hour with him a moment of madness. A rush of sex hormones born of dented self-esteem and grand self-delusion.
Since then, her body had been taken over by their daughter. Poppy had been sure her sex drive had dried up and blown away on the Prairie winds. Or at least was firmly in hibernation.
As it turned out, her libido was alive and well. Heat flooded into her with the distant tingles of intimate, erotic memories. Of the cold press of his belt buckle trapped against her thigh, the dampness of perspiration in the hollow of his spine when she ran her hands beneath his open shirt to clutch at him with encouragement. She recalled exactly the way he had kissed the whisker burn on her chin so tenderly, with a growl of apology in his throat. The way he had cupped her breast with restraint, then licked and sucked at her nipple until she was writhing beneath him.
She could feel anew the sharp sensation of him possessing her, so intimate and satisfying, both glorious and ruinous all at once.
She blushed. Hard. Which made the blistering moment feel like hours. She was overflowing at the edges with mortifying awkwardness, searching her mind for something to say, a way to dissemble so he wouldn’t know how far he’d thrown her.
“Invite him in, Poppy,” her grandmother chided. “You’re going to melt the driveway.”
She meant because she was letting the heat out, but her words made Poppy blush harder. “Of course,” she muttered, flustered. “Come in.”
Explanations crowded her tongue as she backed up a step, but stammering them out wouldn’t make a difference to a man like him. He might have seemed human and reachable for that stolen hour in his mother’s solarium, but she’d realized afterward exactly how ruthless and single-minded he truly was. The passion she’d convinced herself was mutual and startlingly sweet had been a casual, effortless, promptly forgotten seduction on his part.
He’d mended fences with his fiancée the next morning—a woman Poppy knew for a fact he hadn’t loved. He’d told Poppy that he’d only agreed to the marriage to gain the presidency of a company and hadn’t seemed distressed in the least that the wedding had been called off.
Embarrassment at being such an easy conquest had her staring at his feet as she closed the door behind him. “Will you take off your boots, please?”
Her request gave him pause. In his mother’s house, everyone wore shoes, especially guests. A single pair of their usual footwear cost more than Poppy had made in her four months of working in that house.
Rico toed off his boots and set them against the wall. Then he tucked his sunglasses into his chest pocket. His eyes were slate-gray with no spark of blue or flecks of hot green that had surrounded his huge pupils that day in the solarium.
After setting his cold, granite gaze against her until she was chilled through, he glanced past her, into the front room of the tiny bungalow her grandfather had built for his wife while working as a linesman for the hydro company. It was the home where Gramps had brought his bride the day they married. It was where they had brought home their only son and where they had raised their only grandchild.
Seeing him in it made Poppy both humble and defensive. It didn’t compare to the grandiose villa he’d been raised in, but it was her home. Poppy wasn’t ashamed of it, only struck by how he could so easily jeopardize all of this with a snap of his fingers. This house wasn’t even hers. If he had come here to claim Lily, she had very few resources at her disposal. Maybe it would even be held against her that she didn’t have much and he could offer so much more.
“Hello,” he greeted her grandmother as she muted the television and set the remote aside.
“This is Rico Montero, Gran. My grandmother, Eleanor Harris.”
Rico’s brows went up a fraction, making Poppy squirm.
“It’s nice to meet you. Finally.” Gran started to rise.
Poppy stepped forward to help her, but Rico was quick to touch her grandmother’s arm and say, “Please. There’s no need to stand. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Oh, he knew how to use the warmth of his accented voice to slay a woman, young or old. Poppy almost fell for it herself, thinking he sounded reassuring when he was actually here to destroy their small, simple world.
Yet she had to go through the motions of civility. Pretend he was simply a guest who had dropped by.
Gran smiled up at him with glimmers of adoration. “I was getting up to give you privacy to talk. I imagine you’ll want that.”
“In that case, yes please. Allow me to help you.” Rico moved to her side and supported her with gentle care.
Don’t leave me alone with him, Poppy wanted to cry, but she slid Gran’s walker in front of her. “Thank you, Gran.”
“I’ll listen to the radio in my room until you come for me.” Her grandmother nodded and shuffled her way into the hall. “Remember the biscuits.”
The biscuits. The least of her worries. Poppy couldn’t smell them yet, but the timer would go off any second. She moved her body into the path toward the kitchen door, driven by mother-bear instincts.
“Why are you here?” Her voice quavered with the volume of emotions rocketing through her—shock and protectiveness and fear. Culpability and anger and other deeper yearnings she didn’t want to acknowledge.
“I want to see her.” He set his shoulders in a way that told her he wasn’t going anywhere until he did.
Behind her, the sound of bowls coming out of the cupboard and being knocked around reassured her that Lily was perfectly fine without eyes on her.
A suffocating feeling sat on her chest and kept a vise around her throat. She wanted him to answer the rest of her question. What was he going to do about this discovery? She wasn’t ready to face the answer.
Playing for time, she strangled out, “How did you find out?”
If they hadn’t been standing so close, she might have missed the way his pupils dilated and his breath seemed to catch as though taking a blow. In the next second, the impression of shock was gone. A fierce, angry light of satisfaction gleamed in his eyes.
“Sorcha saw a photo you posted of a baby who looks like Mateo. I investigated.”
Odd details from the last two weeks fell into place. She dropped her chin in outrage. “That new dad at the day care! I thought he was hitting on me, asking all those questions.”
Rico’s dark brows slammed together. “He came on to you?”
“He said he took Lily’s cup by mistake, but it was an excuse to talk to me.” Poppy was obviously still batting a thousand where her poor judgement of men was concerned.
“He took it for a DNA sample.”
“That is just plain wrong,” she said indignantly.
“I agree that I shouldn’t have to resort to such measures to learn I have a child. Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked through clenched teeth.
He had some right to the anger he poured over ice. She acknowledged that. But she wasn’t a villain. Just a stupid girl who’d gotten herself in trouble by the wrong man and had made the best of a difficult situation.
“I didn’t realize I was pregnant until you were married. By then, it was all over the gossip sites that Faustina was also expecting.”
It shouldn’t have been such a blow when she’d read that. His wedding had been called off for a day. Loads of people had a moment of cold feet before they went through with the ceremony. She accepted she was collateral damage to that.
She had been feeling very down on herself by then, though. She ought to have known better than to let herself get carried away. She hadn’t taken any precautions. She had been careless and foolish, believing him when he had told her that he and his fiancée hadn’t been sleeping together.
The whole thing had made her feel so humiliatingly stupid. She had hoped never to have to face him or her gullibility ever again.
So much for that.
And facing him was so hard. He was so hard. A muscle was pulsing in his jaw, but the rest of him was like concrete. Pitiless and unmoved.
“Faustina died a year ago last September,” he said in that gritty tone. “You’ve had ample opportunity to come forward.”
As she recalled the terrible headlines she’d read with morbid anguish, her heart turned inside out with agony for him. She had nursed thoughts every day of telling him he had a child after all, but…
“I’m sorry for your loss.” She truly was. No matter what he’d felt for his wife, losing his child must have been devastating.
His expression stiffened and he recoiled slightly at her words of condolence.
“My grandfather was quite ill,” she continued huskily. “If you recall, that’s why I came home. He passed just before Christmas. Gran needed me. There hasn’t been a right time to shake things up.”
His expression altered slightly as he absorbed that.
She imagined his sorrow to be so much more acute than hers. She mourned a man who had lived a full life and who had passed without pain or regret. They’d held a service that had been a true celebration of his long life.
While Rico’s baby had been cheated of even starting its own.
Rico nodded acceptance of her excuse with only a pained flicker as acknowledgment of what must have been his very personal and intensely painful loss.
Had grief driven him here? Was he trying to replace his lost child with his living one? No. The thought of it agonized her. Lily wasn’t some placeholder for another child. It cracked her heart in half that he might think she could be.
Before she could find words to address that fear, the timer beeped in the kitchen.
Lily had become very quiet, too, which was a sure sign of trouble. Poppy turned to glance around the doorframe. Lily sat with one finger poking at the tiny hole on a bowl’s rim, where the bowl was meant to be hung on a nail.
Firm hands settled on her shoulders. Rico’s untamed scent and the heat of his body surrounded her. He looked past her into the kitchen. At his daughter.
Poppy told herself not to look, but she couldn’t help it. She was afraid he would be resentful that Lily had lived when his other baby hadn’t. Even as she feared he was planning to steal her, she perversely would be more agonized if he rejected her. He had come all this way. That meant he felt something toward her, didn’t it? On some level, he wanted her?
His expression was unreadable, face so closed and tense, her heart dropped into her shoes.
Love her, she wanted to beg. Please.
His breath sucked in with an audible hiss. He took in so much air, his chest swelled to brush against her back. His hands tightened on her shoulders.
At the subtle noise, Lily lifted her gorgeous gray eyes, so like her father’s. A huge smile broke across her face.
“Mama.” The bowls were forgotten and she crawled toward them, pulling herself up on the gate.
Lily’s smile propelled Poppy through all her hard days. She was Poppy’s world. Poppy’s parents were distant, her grandfather gone, her grandmother… Well, Poppy didn’t want to think about losing her even though she knew it was inevitable.
But she had this wee girl and she was everything.
“Hello, button.” Poppy scooped up her daughter and kissed her cheek, never able to resist that soft, plump bite of sweet-smelling warmth. Then she brushed at Lily’s hands because it didn’t matter how many times she swept or vacuumed, Lily found the specks and dust bunnies in her eager exploration of her world.
This time when Poppy looked to Rico, she saw his reaction more clearly. He was trying to mask it with stoicism, but the intensity in his gaze ate up Lily’s snowy skin and cupid’s-bow mouth.
Her emotions seesawed again. She had needed this. Her heart had needed to see him accept his daughter, but he was a threat, too.
“This is Lily.” Her name was tellingly sentimental, not the sort of romantic notion Poppy should have given in to, but since her own name was a flower, it had seemed right.
Poppy faltered, not ready to tell Lily this was Daddy.
Lily brought her fingers to her mouth and said, “Ee.”
“Eat?” Poppy asked and slid her hand down from her throat. “You’re hungry?”
“Sign language?” Rico asked, voice sharpening with concern. “Is she hearing impaired?”
“It’s sign language for babies. They teach it at day care. She’s trying to say words, but this works for now.” Poppy stepped over the gate into the kitchen and snapped off the oven. “Do you, um…” She couldn’t believe this was happening, but she wanted to put off the hard conversations as long as possible. “Will you join us for dinner?”
A brief pause, then, “You don’t have to cook. I can order something in.”
“From where?” Poppy chuckled dryly as she set Lily in her chair. “We have Chinese takeout and a pizza palace.” Not his usual standard. “The soup is already made.”
She tied on Lily’s bib and set the bowl of cooled soup and a small flat spoon in front of her.
Lily grabbed the spoon and batted it into the thick soup.
“Renting the car was a challenge for my staff,” he mentioned absently, frowning as Lily missed her mouth and smeared soup across her own cheek.
“Gran said you’re driving something fancy,” Poppy recalled. She had forgotten to look, unable to see past the man to anything else.
“An Alfa Romeo, but it’s a sedan.”
With a car seat? Poppy almost bobbled the sheet of biscuits as she took them from the oven. “Are you, um, staying at the motel?”
He snorted. “No. My staff have taken a cottage an hour from here so I have a bed if I decide to stay.”
Poppy tried to read his expression, but he was watching Lily, frowning with exasperation as Lily turned her head, open mouth looking for the end of the spoon.
In a decisive move, he removed his jacket and draped it over the back of a chair. Then he picked up the teaspoon beside Poppy’s setting and turned the chair to face Lily. He sat and began helping her eat.
Poppy caught her breath, arrested by the sight of this dynamic man feeding their daughter. His strapping muscles strained the seams in his shirt, telling of his tension, but he calmly waited for Lily to try before he gently touched the tip of his teaspoon to her bottom lip. He let Lily lean into eating it before they both went after the next spoonful in the bowl.
Had she dreamed of this? Was she dreaming? It was such a sweet sight her ovaries locked fresh eggs into their chambers, preparing to launch and create another Lily or five. All she needed was one glance from him that contained something other than accusation or animosity.
“You said the timing was wrong.”
It took her a moment to realize he was harking back to the day they’d conceived her. She could only stand there in chagrined silence while a coal of uncomfortable heat burned in her middle, spreading a blush upward, into her throat and cheeks and ending in a pressure behind her eyes.
He glanced at her. “When we—”
“I know what you mean,” she cut him off, turning away to stack hot biscuits onto a plate, suffused in virginal discomfiture all over again. He’d noticed blood and asked if she had started her cycle. She’d been too embarrassed to tell him it was her first time. She was too embarrassed to say it now.
“I should have taken something after.” She didn’t tell him she had hung around in Spain an extra day, hoping he would come find her only to hear the wedding was back on.
That news had propelled her from the scene, consuming her with thoughts of what a pushover she’d been for a man on a brief furlough from his engagement. Contraception should have been top of mind, but…
“I was traveling, trying to make my flight.” Poppy hugged herself, trying to keep the fissure in her chest from widening. She felt so exposed right now and couldn’t meet his penetrating stare. “I honestly did think the timing was wrong. I didn’t even realize I was pregnant until I was starting to show. I had next to no symptoms.” There’d even been a bit of spotting. “I thought the few signs I did have were stress related. Gramps’s health was deteriorating. By the time it was confirmed, you were married.” She finally looked at him and let one hand come out, palm up, beseeching for understanding.
There was no softening in his starkly unforgiving expression.
“I didn’t think you would—” She couldn’t say aloud that she had worried he wouldn’t want his daughter. Not when he was feeding Lily with such care.
Helpless tears pressed behind her eyes.
He knew what she had almost said and sent her another flat stare of muted fury. “I want her, Poppy. That’s why I’m here.”
Her heart swerved in her chest. The pressure behind her eyes increased.
“Don’t look so terrified.” He returned his attention to Lily, who was waiting with an open mouth like a baby bird. “I’m not here to kidnap her.”
“What then?” She clung tight to her elbows, needing something to anchor her. Needing to know what was going to happen.
“Am I supposed to ignore her?”
“No.” His question poked agonizing pins into the most sensitive spots on her soul. “But I was afraid you might,” she admitted. “I thought it would be easier on both of us if you didn’t know, rather than if you did, but didn’t care.”
Another wall-of-concrete stare, then a clearly pronounced, “I care.” He scraped the spoon through the thick soup. “And not only because the maids in my mother’s house are bound to recognize the resemblance the way Sorcha’s nanny did and begin to talk. She’s a Montero. She’s entitled to the benefits that brings.”
Now he stood directly on Poppy’s pride.
“We don’t need help, Rico. That’s another reason I never told you. I didn’t want you to think I was looking for a handout. We’re fine.”
“The day care with the nonexistent security is ‘fine’? What happens when it’s known her father is wealthy? We take basic precautions, Poppy. You don’t even have an alarm system. I didn’t hear you click a lock when you opened the front door.”
They lived in rural Canada. People worried about squirrels in the attic, not burglars in the bedroom.
“No one knows you’re rich. Gran is the only person who even knows your name and I wasn’t entirely forthcoming about…who you really are.” Poppy gave a tendril of hair a distracted brush so it tucked behind her ear for all of five seconds. “Do you mind if I get her? She takes medication on a schedule and needs to eat beforehand. We try to stick to a routine.”
“Of course.” He lifted two fingers off the bowl he still held steady for Lily’s jabs of her own spoon. “We’ll discuss how we’ll proceed after Lily is in bed.”
Poppy opened the gate and set it aside, leaving Rico to continue feeding his daughter.
He had watched Sorcha and Cesar do this countless times with their sons. He’d always thought it a messy process best left to nannies, but discovered it was oddly satisfying. His older nephew, Enrique, had reached an age where he held conversations—some that were inadvertently amusing—but babies had always struck Rico as something that required a lot of intensive care without offering much in return.
Sorcha had pressed her sons onto him over the years, which had achieved her goal of provoking feelings of affection in him, but, like his parents, he viewed children as something between a duty and a social experiment. Even when he had briefly believed Faustina had been carrying his heir, the idea of being a father had only been that—an idea. Not a concept he had fully internalized or a role he understood how to fulfill effectively. Fatherhood hadn’t been something he had viewed with anticipation the way other creative projects had inspired him.
But here he sat, watching eyes the same color as his own track to the doorway where Poppy had disappeared. A wet finger pointed. “Mama.”
“She’ll be right back.” He imagined Poppy would actually spend a few minutes talking to her grandmother in private.
Lily smiled before she leaned forward, mouth open.
Damn, she was beautiful. It wasn’t bias, either. Or his fondness for the nephews she resembled. She had her mother’s fresh snowy skin and red-gold lashes, healthy round cheeks and a chin that suggested she had his stubbornness along with his eyes.
A ridiculous swell of pride went through him even as he reminded himself that he didn’t know conclusively that she was his. The DNA test off the cup had been a long shot and hadn’t proved paternity either way.
Nevertheless, he’d been propelled as much by the absence of truth as he would have been by the presence of it. From the time Sorcha had revealed her suspicion, a ferocious fire had begun to burn in him, one stoked by yet another female keeping secrets from him. Huge, life-altering secrets.
He hadn’t wanted to wait for more tests, or hire lawyers, or even pick up the phone and ask. He had needed to see for himself.
Who? a voice asked in the back of his head.
Both, he acknowledged darkly. He had needed to set eyes on the baby, whom he recognized on a deeply biological level, and on the woman who haunted his memories.
Poppy had seemed so guileless. So refreshingly honest and real.
He thought back to that day, searching for the moment where he’d been tricked into making a baby with a woman who had then kept her pregnancy a secret.
He remembered thinking his mother wouldn’t appreciate him popping a bottle of the wedding champagne—even though she’d procured a hundred cases that had been superfluous because the wedding had been called off.
Rico had helped himself to his father’s scotch in the billiards room instead. He had taken it through to the solarium, planning to bum a cigarette from the gardener. It was a weakness he had kicked years ago, but the craving still hit sometimes, when his life went sideways.
It was the end of the day, though. The sun-warmed room was packed to the gills with lilies brought in to replace the ones damaged by a late frost. The solarium was deserted and the worktable in the back held a dirty ashtray and a cigarette pack that was empty.
“Oh! I’m so sorry.”
The woman spoke in English, sounding American, maybe. He turned to see the redheaded maid who’d been on the stairs an hour earlier, when Faustina had been throwing a tantrum that had included one of his mother’s Wedgwoods, punctuating the end of their engagement. He would come to understand much later what sort of pressure Faustina had been under, but at the time, she’d been an unreasonable, clichéd diva of a bride by whom he’d been relieved to have been jilted.
And the interruption by the fresh-faced maid had been a welcome distraction.
Her name was Poppy. He knew that without looking at the embroidered tag on her uniform. She stared with wide doe eyes, the proverbial deer in headlights, startled to come upon him pilfering smokes as though he was thirteen again.
“I mean…um…perdón.” She pivoted to go back the way she’d come.
“Wait. Do you have a cigarette?” he asked in English.
She swallowed and linked her hands shyly before her.
Ah. She’d been watching him too, had she?
His mother’s staff had been off-limits since his brother’s first kiss with a maid before Rico had even had a shot at one. He didn’t usually notice one from another, but Poppy had snagged his attention with her vibrant red hair. Curls were springing free of the bundle she’d scraped it into, teasing him with fantasies of releasing the rest and digging his hands into the kinky mass.
The rest of her was cute as hell, too, if a bit skinny and young. Maybe it was her lack of makeup. That mouth, unpainted, but with a plump bottom lip and a playful top was all woman. Her brows were so light, they were almost blond, her chin pert, her eyes a gentle yet very direct dark ale-brown.
No, he reminded himself. He was engaged.
Actually, he absorbed with a profound sense of liberation, he wasn’t. Faustina had firmly and unequivocally ended their engagement, despite his mother’s best efforts to talk her back on board.
His mother had retired with a wet compress and a migraine tablet. He had come in here because he couldn’t go home. His house was being renovated for the bride who was now refusing to share her life with him. Driving all the way to his brother’s house to get blind drunk had felt like an unnecessary delay.
“I don’t smoke.” He dropped the empty pack and picked up his drink. “I rebelled for a year or so when I was a teen, but it seemed like a good excuse to talk with Ernesto about football and other inconsequential topics.” He was sick to death of jabbering about weddings and duty and the expected impact on the family fortune.
Her shoulders softened and her red-gold brows angled with sympathy. “I’m really sorry.” She sounded adorably sincere. “I’ll, um, give you privacy to…”
“Wallow in heartbreak? Unnecessary.” Faustina’s outburst had been the sum total of passion their marriage was likely to have borne. “I don’t want to chase you away if you’re on your break.”
“No, I’m done. I know we’re not supposed to cut through here to get to the change rooms over the garage, but I was hoping to catch Ernesto myself. He gives me a lift sometimes.”
“Are you American?” he asked.
Her strawberry blond lashes flickered in surprise, her expression growing shy. Aware.
An answering awareness teased through him, waking the wolf inside him. That starved beast had been locked inside a cave the last six months, but unexpectedly found himself free of the heavy chain he’d placed around his own neck. The sun was in his eyes, the wind was ruffling his fur and he was picking up the scent of a willing female. He was itching to romp and tumble and mate.
“Canada.” She cleared her throat. “Saskatchewan. A little town with nothing but canola fields and clouds.” She shook her head. “You wouldn’t have heard of it.”
“How did you wind up here?”
“I’d tell you, but I’d bore you to death.” Despite her words, a pretty smile played around her mouth and a soft blush of pleasure glowed under her skin.
“I came out here to smoke. Clearly I have a death wish.”
After a small chuckle, she cautioned, “Okay, but stop me if you feel light-headed.”
Definitely not bored, he thought with a private smile. She wasn’t merely a first cigarette years after quitting, either. To be sure he was drawing in this lighthearted flirting with avid greed, but he found himself enjoying her wit. He was genuinely intrigued by her.
“I saved up to trek around Europe with a friend, but she broke her ankle on the second day and flew home.” She folded her arms, protective or defensive, maybe. “I tagged along with some students from a hostel coming here, but a few days after we arrived, one of them stole everything I had.” She slapped a what-can-you-do? smile on it, but the tension around her eyes and mouth told him she was still upset.
He frowned. “Did you go to the police?”
“It was my fault.” She flinched with self-recrimination. “I gave him my card to get some cash for me one morning. He must have made a copy or something. Three days later he’d syphoned all of my savings and was gone. I had my passport, a bag of raisins and my hairbrush. Losing my camera gutted me the most. It was a gift and my memory card was still in it, not that I’d had the chance to fill it. It was a huge bummer.” She summed up with philosophical lightness.
“You’re a photographer?”
“Not anymore,” she asserted with disgust, then shrugged it off. “At least I had prepaid for a week at the hostel. I asked around and got on with a temp agency. I was brought in to help clean the pool house and guest cottage. Darna liked my work and asked me to stay on full-time in the big house. I’ve been saving for a ticket home ever since.”
“How much do you need?” He reached into his pocket.
“Oh, no!” She halted him, horrified. “I have enough. I just worked it out with Darna that today was my last day. She thought she would need me through the rest of June for—” She halted, wincing as she realized who she was talking to.
Rico let the awkwardness hang in the air, not to punish, but because he was finding her candor so refreshing.
“It seemed like the wedding was going to be really beautiful.” She sounded apologetic. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
He wasn’t. That was the naked truth, but he deflected by saying, “I’ve heard that Canadians apologize a lot. I didn’t believe it.”
“We do. Sorry.” She winked on that one.
Was she sorry?
Rico came back to the tap of a dirty spoon against the back of his knuckles.
Poppy had been twenty-two, disillusioned after being shortchanged on chasing her dreams, yet willing to come home to fulfill family obligations. He had understood that pressure and had confided his own reasons for going along with family expectations.
That affinity had led to a kiss and his feet had somehow carried her to the sheet-draped furniture hidden amongst the jungle of fragrant lilies.
Since learning about Lily, he’d been convinced Poppy had somehow tricked him the way Faustina had, for her own nefarious ends.
That suspicion wasn’t playing as strongly now that he was here. Her home was unpretentious, dated and showing signs of age, but neat and well cared for. Her bond with her grandmother and daughter seemed genuine and from the reports he’d commissioned, she was this side of financially solvent. She didn’t even have a speeding ticket on her record.
He’d picked up two on his way here, but that was beside the point.
In the past, he had seen what he wanted to see. He couldn’t allow himself to be so credulous again.
He made himself take a cool moment to watch Lily’s concentrated effort to touch the end of her spoon into the soup and bring the taste to her mouth. She grinned as she succeeded, spoon caught between her tiny white teeth.
He had no proof, but he was convinced she was his. He had to claim her.
As for Poppy, he was still absorbing the impact she continued to have on him. He still reacted physically to her. One look at her in jeans and a loose pullover and his mouth had started to water. No makeup, hair gathered into a messy knot of kinks on her head, wariness like a halo around her, yet he’d had to restrain himself from reaching for her. Not to grab or take possession, but simply to touch. Fill his hands with the textures of her.
Was her skin as smooth and soft as his erotic dreams replayed? Would her nipples tighten if he licked then blew lightly again? Did her voice still break in orgasm and would that sound once again send pleasurable shivers down his back?
That chemistry was a weakness, one that warned him to keep his guard up, but it didn’t deter him from his plan one iota.
In fact, it stoked a fire of anticipation deep in the pit of his belly.
Poppy’s tension remained through dinner, even though Rico went on a charm offensive against her grandmother, breaking out levels even Poppy hadn’t realized he possessed, asking after her health and offering condolences over Gramps.
“I’m very sorry to hear you lost him. I remember Poppy saying he wasn’t well, just before she left Spain.”
Poppy released a subtle snort, suspecting he only recalled that detail because she had reminded him of it an hour ago.
He frowned with affront. “I asked you why you weren’t using the money you’d saved to see more of Europe. You said your grandparents needed help moving into a care facility.”
For one second, she saw glints of blue and green in his irises, telling her he remembered everything about that day.
A spike of tingling heat drove sharp as a lance through her. She crossed her legs, bumping her foot against his shin in the process and sending a reverberation of deeper awareness through her whole body.
“We were talking about moving,” Gran said, forcing Rico to break their eye contact. “I couldn’t look after Bill myself, but having Poppy here bought us an extra year in our home.” Gran squeezed her hand over Poppy’s, the strength in her grip heart-wrenchingly faint. “He would have faded all the faster if we’d been forced to leave this house. I’ll always be grateful to her for giving us that. I don’t know what I would have done if she hadn’t been here in the months since he’s been gone, either. She’s been our special blessing her whole life.”
“Gran.” Poppy teared up. She knew darned well she’d been more of a burden.
“And Lily is ever so precious, too.” Gran smiled at the baby. “But it’s time.”
“Time?” Poppy repeated with muted alarm.
“I’ll call your aunt Sheila in the morning,” she said of her sister, patting Poppy’s hand before she removed her touch. “I’m on the top of the list at that facility near her apartment. I’m sure I can stay with her until a room opens up.”
“Poppy. We both know I shouldn’t have been here this winter, making more work for you on top of looking after the baby. You were shoveling the drive on your one day off to get me to the doctor’s office. I have no business near that ice by the front steps, either. You’re penning up Lily, worrying I’ll trip over her. I’m worried. No, I don’t want to hold you back from the life you ought to be leading.”
“This is the life I want to lead.” Poppy’s chin began to crinkle the way Lily’s did when she was coming down with a cold and Poppy had to leave her at day care.
“Oh, is your fancy man moving in with us, then?” Gran asked.
“I see where Poppy gets her spark.” A faint smile touched Rico’s lips. “Poppy and I have details to work out, but you’re right that my life is in Spain. I’m here to marry her and take Poppy and Lily home with me.”
After a brief, illogical spike of elation, Poppy’s heart fell with that bombshell news. Her mind exploded. He wasn’t wrenching their daughter from her arms, but she wasn’t relieved in the least. She immediately knew this wasn’t about her. He’d married for coldly practical reasons the first time. He might dazzle her grandmother with kindness and charisma, but it was a dispassionate move to get what he wanted by the quickest, most efficient means. She shouldn’t be shocked at all by his goal or his methods.
“My life is here with Gran,” Poppy insisted shakily. “She needs me nearby, even if she moves into assisted care.”
“Poppy.” The fragility of her grandmother’s hand draped over hers again. “What I need is to know that when I’m gone, you’re settled with someone who will take care of you and Lily. That person ought to be her father.” She patted lightly, saying with quiet power, “I know what this would have meant to you.”
If her own father had shown up to take her home, Gran meant. The hot pressure behind her eyes increased.
Even so, there was a part of Poppy that simply heard it as her grandmother wishing Poppy would cease to be a burden upon her.
A spiked ball lodged behind Poppy’s breastbone, one she couldn’t swallow away. It was so sharp it made tears sting her eyes.
“It’s obvious Poppy won’t be comfortable unless you’re comfortable, Eleanor. Give us a chance to finish our talk. Then you and I will discuss your options. I’m sure we can find solutions that satisfy all of us.”
Poppy wanted to shout a giant, scoffing, Ha! She rose to clear the table.