I recently passed the thirty mark (three-zero) on completed and submitted books. True story. I'm celebrating by setting up Bites of Books, a new feature that will give you a taste of my backlist.
Lauren slept with Paolo the day after learning her husband was dead. The men were best friends. Now she has arrived at a white-tie ball to inform Paolo that she is expecting his child...
~ * ~
Seeing him was far, far harder than she’d expected. He’d been incredibly remote the next morning as the press release was read. She’d been frozen herself, just trying to get through the days until the funeral. The Bradleys had closed ranks, creating a buffer that kept Paolo from approaching. At least, that’s what Lauren had thought at the time, when she’d spared a thought beyond her inward twisting of anguish, grief, and guilt. She’d been grateful not to speak to Paolo after the shameless way she’d behaved.
Now, however, everything was different. Or was it? She was still dying inside at her brazen behavior. Part of her was second guessing her decision to come here. She’d been a fool to imagine there’d been any emotion on his side that night. Obviously it had been nothing more than an exercise in physical gratification. He wasn’t showing any enthusiasm for seeing her. This was the same man who’d frozen her out most of the times she’d seen him. Best to cut to the chase and leave.
“Actually, I’m not here to wine and dine, Paolo. I need to speak to you. I tried to book an appointment through your assistant.”
He kept a bored look on his face while people around them cast curious glances their way. “With the death of your husband, cara, I thought my ties to you were finally severed and we’d never speak again.” Nice. He really did despise her to the core.
Because of Charleston? Or did it go back to her wedding day?
She had never understood Paolo except to liken him to Ryan: driven by his ego and masculine desires, slaying women without even trying because females eagerly set themselves up for the little death such potent men promised.
And delivered. She almost had to shut her eyes to beat back the memory of how beautifully Paolo delivered.
She reminded herself she was one of many women who wished they knew him better, but honestly, she’d had so few occasions to try. He’d bought her a drink in a bar despite being engaged to another woman then sat back while his friend pursued her. He’d kissed her with unexpected passion at her wedding reception then snubbed her when Lauren tried to speak to him a few years later at Ryan’s birthday.
In Charleston he’d been solicitous and tender, then ardent and insatiable.
Then cold. Sub-Arctic cold.
She hadn’t exactly been impressed with herself at that point, making love to her husband’s best friend the night before his death was announced, so she ought to face his hostility without feeling as though a chisel was being hammered directly into her heart, but his enmity hurt. He didn’t have to be madly in love with her, but he did owe her a few minutes to tell him they had a tie between them that could never be severed.
A woman in midnight blue chose that moment to join them, forcing Paolo to drag his gaze with visible annoyance from trying to penetrate Lauren’s to the inquiring face of a woman with unmistakable Italian coloring.
“Isabella,” Paolo said in a tense tone. He slid a possessive arm around her and brushed her cheekbone with his lips, provoking a surprised widening of her eyes. “May I introduce Mrs. Ryan Bradley? An old friend.”
His tone was dismissive, emphasizing ‘old’. Former. A possession of his friend.
Isabella was twenty if she was a day and Lauren felt ancient before her. She was acutely aware of her status as a widow. A cynical and jaded one.
Nevertheless, she managed a courteous, “Call me Lauren, please. Since no one else seems to.” She cast that at both Paolo and the world, accompanying the request with an offering of her hand.
It trembled. She hadn’t let herself think of Paolo with a woman in his life. Seeing him touch Isabella made sharp talons rip into her from the souls of her feet right up to the base of her throat. Of course he had women in his life. They all did.
Isabella cast a look between them, trying to read what may have happened during the infamous disappearance of Ryan Bradley’s wife into the rarely used penthouse of his close friend the night before Captain Bradley’s death was revealed.
Paolo maintained a stoic expression. Nothing, his flat gaze said.
Lauren had perfected the same poker face and baldly showed it to Isabella.
While remaining burningly conscious that her waistline would soon reveal their big, fat lie.
“I can only stay a few minutes,” Lauren excused, thinking that must sound bizarre considering she’d obviously spent as many hours on her appearance as every other woman here. “Would you be very offended if I claimed a dance? I only wished to say hello to Paolo as I was passing through New York. He’s been so kind.” She choked a little on the adjective.
Had it been pity that had prompted him to make love to her? The thought had been lashing her like a whip since he’d given in with a shudder and a curse. Her hand longed to go to her waistline in an attempt to protect her developing baby from such a pitiable start.
“Of course,” Isabella said magnanimously. “And please accept my sincere condolences.”
Appearances again. It seemed Lauren was just as guilty as the rest of the world. Sickly guilty, if she let herself dwell on it, which she tried not to. She woke in a cold sweat too often, worrying her husband’s death was her fault. He hadn’t been happy about her request for a divorce. Had it made him extra reckless when foiling those terrorists?
Pressing the suspicion to the back of her mind, she accepted the condolences for the sake of Ryan’s family, squeezed Isabella’s hand with appreciation and avoided the delving look Paolo turned on her. Ten minutes, she swore to herself. Then she could wrestle herself out of this dress and all the other confines of her life. She would be a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, able to fly into places she’d never dreamed when she’d been a lowly silkworm tied by emotional threads to her grandmother’s estate of maple trees.
“Why here then?” Paolo asked as he steered her toward the dance floor, his tone growling with disapproval. “If you only wanted a few minutes of my time?”
“I—” She had to pull herself together as he set confident hands on her, leading her into a waltz. It had been years since she’d taken the lessons, imagining dancing with Ryan in Vienna when she joined him there, but the trip had never materialized. Nothing truly exciting had ever happened to her.
Except discovering she was pregnant with this man’s baby.
Lauren faltered, searching her memory for the steps and searching for a clear thought in the haze that closed in with Paolo’s disconcerting presence.
Wide shoulders filled her vision. His clean-shaven jaw tempted her lips to lift and taste. He’d been stubbled and masculine and hot, so unquenchably, passionately hot. Demanding when he took control. Skilled and confident and ravenous. Like a wild animal let out of his cage, running her to ground and feasting on her.
Her breath shortened and sexual heat suffused her, making her quiver, filling her nostrils with his familiar scent. It had only been the one night. How could she know his dark, espresso scent so well she could find him blindfolded in this heavily perfumed crowd?
“You’re making a fool of yourself,” he muttered.
The words sliced through her, withering a very sensitive nerve. She knew she lacked experience and sophistication. Why else had her husband cheated on her? Paolo didn’t need to rub it in, though.
Lauren flashed him a livid glance from eyes that burned, but he wasn’t looking at her. He wasn’t aware she was melting under his touch.
“Be a merry widow for your next husband,” he said scathingly. “Ryan deserves better.”
Ryan had lived a double life.
“He had his mail delivered to his mother’s,” she said, shying at the last moment from shattering Ryan’s precious image. He was dead and he’d died with honor even if he hadn’t entirely lived so. “The invitation was forwarded in a packet they sent to me.”
It had been post-marked the day Ryan had gone missing. The engraved envelope was one she’d seen annually and always wound up throwing away because her husband had never been home to take her.
“Initially it only meant that you’d be in New York. I wanted an appointment to see you in your office, but your schedule was booked and my grandmother’s closet is full of dresses like this. When else would I wear one?”
Pride had made her do this. Pride and a perverse desire to thumb her nose at expectations and propriety. Frances Hammond had come home pregnant with her head held high. Lauren Bradley intended to leave the same way.
She lifted her chin, daring him to take that away from her.
Nothing. Not one iota of reaction. Only a disinterested, “Why did you want to see me?”
The moment of truth. She waited until he’d spun her so her back was to the majority of the crowd, making lip-reading from across the room less likely. “I needed to tell you that I’m...” She found the Italian word she’d looked up special. “Incinta.”
If the language switch caused him any confusion, he didn’t show it. In fact, he showed little reaction at all, beyond one contemptuous glance down his nose.