“That’s okay,” Slade said easily, as they all settled into their chairs. “Although Ms. Stevens—Lara—was growing concerned with, ah, with the service. Our, uh, our waiter took our drinks order and disappeared.”
“They must be having an off night.” Dobbs relaxed into his seat. “Well, let’s hope the chef’s on target, anyway. This place does extraordinary crab cakes. And the blackened redfish?” He smiled and kissed his fingertips. “It’s like poetry. Just the barest kiss of spices.”
“The barest kiss. Sounds charming,” Slade said pleasantly. “Isn’t that right, Lara?”
Lara looked across the table at him. “Yes,” she said, after the briefest hesitation. “Yes, it does.”
And she buried her face in the menu.
* * *
Would the evening never end?
Dobbs and Slade chatted easily, about the new building, about the city, about everything, until Lara wondered if they’d ever stop talking. She smiled until her jaw hurt, moved her food around her plate, sipped her wine and managed to say yes, no, and maybe whenever the time seemed right.
Finally, just when she knew she’d scream if she had to tolerate another minute, Dobbs looked at his watch, sighed with what seemed genuine reluctance and signaled for the check.
“Slade?” he said, as they stood outside the restaurant. “Are you staying in town or are you flying back to Boston tonight?”
“I’m flying to Texas, Edwin. That birthday party, remember?”
“Oh. Yes, of course. Well, then, since I’m going the other way, perhaps you and Ms. Stevens might want to share a cab. I believe you head in that direction, don’t you, my dear?”
“No,” Lara said quickly. “I mean—I mean, I don’t see—”
“I don’t see it as a problem, either,” Slade said politely. His hand closed on her elbow, his fingers tightening when she tried to jerk away. “Thank you for dinner, Edwin. I’ll have my office fax you the name of that interior designer I mentioned.”
“Wonderful,” Dobbs said, and beamed. “Ms. Stevens, good night. I know I’m leaving you in good hands.”
“In good hands, indeed,” Lara snapped, as soon as the door to the taxi slammed behind her. She pulled her arm from Slade’s grasp, scooted across the seat and as far into the corner as she could manage. “I almost told him the truth, that I’d rather walk than share a cab with you.”
“What’s the problem, Sugar?” Slade leaned back, folded his arms and stretched out his long legs. “Don’t you trust yourself not to jump my bones in such a confined space?”
“Jump your bones?” Lara shot him a furious look. “The only time I’d want to jump your bones is if I were wearing hobnailed boots.”
She folded her arms, too, and stared out the side window in silence until they reached her house.
Slade reached past her and opened the door. “Shall I see you in?” he said, all but oozing politeness.
Lara didn’t bother answering. She stepped onto the pavement, slammed the door as hard as she could and hurried up the walk. Not even knowing she was about to enter her own private little world eased her rage.
Mrs. Krauss opened the door before she could turn her key in the lock.
“It’s a good thing you’re back,” she said crossly. “A woman with a baby shouldn’t keep such late hours.”
“It was business, Mrs. Krauss.” Lara tried to sound polite. It wasn’t easy to find someone reliable to care for Michael. Mrs. Krauss was her third attempt in as many months. “I’m sorry I kept you. As always, I’ll pay you double for the extra time. Thank you for staying, and I’ll see you Monday morning.”
“Monday night I’m leaving for Florida.” Mrs. Krauss jammed a baseball cap on her graying hair. “My sister’s sick. Don’t know when I’ll be back.”
“No.” Lara hurried after the older woman. “You can’t do that, Mrs. Krauss! You can’t just—just leave me in the lurch!”
“I’ll call, when I get back,” Mrs. Krauss said, and slammed the door.
Lara stared after her retreating figure. Then she slumped back against the wall and groaned. Now what? The day care centers had endless waiting lists. Not that she wanted to leave Michael in a place where he’d be one solitary little boy among many. It was bad enough he didn’t have a full-time mother or a grandmother or aunt who even pretended to care about him…
Lara blew out her breath, locked the door, then climbed the stairs to the second floor.
That was tomorrow’s problem. She’d phone the agencies and, if worse came to worse, she’d call in sick on Monday. She had meetings but she could reschedule them. Nothing was as important as Michael.
He was in his blue-and-white bedroom, fast asleep, tucked into his crib with his beloved teddy bear curled in his arm. One glance at her sleeping son, and the tensions of the impossible evening seeped from Lara’s bones.
Her bedroom adjoined his. Quietly she kicked off her black pumps, shed her suit and blouse, traded the identifying armor of her career for an old cotton robe and bare feet. This was the only career she wanted now, the only one that mattered, she thought as she lifted Michael gently from his crib.
It wasn’t possible to be with him full-time. She needed her job to support her little family but oh, how she envied the handful of women she saw in the park on those rare, wonderful weekdays she stayed home to care for her baby.
Michael stirred in her arms.
“Hello, sweetheart,” she whispered.
He blinked, then opened his eyes. He gave a bleary smile and she caught her breath as she looked at her son.
He had his father’s black hair. His nose, and even his chin. There was no mistaking those smoky-gray eyes…
There was no pretending her child was not Slade Baron’s son.
Fear rolled in her blood. What would Slade do if he found out? The games he thought she’d played were nothing compared with this one. This game had the highest stakes of all.
Michael yawned and murmured sleepily as she settled in the rocking chair. Minutes slipped by, and memories, as she snuggled him to her breast. It had been hard, at first. Putting in for the transfer from Atlanta. Inventing a husband and a divorce because that made for fewer questions. Being alone, always alone…
The doorbell rang.
Lara’s head jerked up at the sound.
The doorbell, at this hour?
The bell rang again, and Michael—asleep now—stirred in her arms.
She rose from the rocker, carefully lay him in his crib. It had to be Mrs. Krauss. Maybe it was just as well she was leaving. She was good with Michael—she seemed to be, anyway. But she was gruff. And forgetful. Last week, she’d been halfway home before she’d realized she’d left her handbag in the kitchen.
The bell shrilled a third time as she ran down the stairs. “Mrs. Krauss,” she said impatiently as she cracked the door, “for goodness sakes, you’re going to wake—”
It wasn’t Mrs. Krauss. It was Slade.
Lara slammed the door in his face. At least, she tried to, but he was quicker and stronger, and he’d had enough of playing games to last him a lifetime. She pushed, he pushed back, and just that easily, he was inside the house.
Slade knew he’d said he never chased a woman who belonged to another man, and he didn’t. But Lara had spent the evening making him feel as if he were a disease she’d contracted instead of a man she’d made passionate love with through a long winter’s night, and the reason for it was somebody named Michael. Well, he’d decided he wasn’t leaving Baltimore until he had a look at this paragon of manly virtue—and maybe, just for kicks, flattened the bastard’s nose.
A couple of beers at the bar where the cabbie had dropped him, followed by a walk around the block four or five times, had convinced him that was a sensible, even a necessary, thing to do.
Nobody, especially not Lara, was going to stop him.
“Where is he?” Slade growled, and kicked the door shut.
“Who?” Lara said. Michael, she th
ought, oh, Michael, don’t make a sound.
“Do us both a favor, okay?” Slade brushed past her and peered into the living room. “I know he’s here, you know he’s here. Let him come out and face me like a man.”
“You’re drunk,” she said, and danced in front of him.
His smile glittered with hostility. “I tried, but trust me, Sugar, I’m stone-cold sober.”
“I’ll call the police. And don’t bother threatening me, Slade. I don’t give a damn if this ends up in court. Nobody at Beaufort will blame me for calling the cops after you broke into my house.”
“Broke in? Me?” He gave a harsh laugh, stepped around her and looked in the kitchen. “We had dinner, took a cab and you invited me in. If you deny it, I’ll just have to tell old Ed all about you and me and that Denver hotel.” The living room was empty, and the tiny dining room. Slade started up the stairs. “Dammit, where is he? And don’t lie to me, Lara. I know your precious Michael is here. You almost flew out of that cab, you were so damned eager to be with him.”
“All right.” Lara moistened her lips. “He’s here. He’s—he’s sleeping. And if—if you wake him, he’s going to be angry. He’ll be hard to deal with.”
Slade laughed as he strode down the hallway. It wasn’t a pretty sound. “That’s fine, Sugar. The mood I’m in, I’d just as soon lover-boy was hard to deal with tonight.”
“Slade, please.” God, oh God, he was at Michael’s bedroom. Breathless, she cut in front of him again and barred the door with her body. “Don’t. Don’t!”
She whimpered as he clasped her waist and lifted her out of his way. She could feel the anger humming through his blood.
“Time to wake up, Michael my man,” Slade said, and switched on the light.
SLADE’S flight to Dallas had already left, but there was another plane boarding just as he got to the airport.
He bought his ticket, ran for the gate and made it with seconds to spare. It occurred to him that he might end up standing around the Dallas airport, waiting to catch a connecting flight to Austin. Hell, he thought wryly, why not? Airports had been big in his life lately.
All he wanted right now was to put as much distance as possible between himself and what he’d just stumbled into.
A baby. Lara had a baby. He could hardly absorb it but he knew the image would be burned into his brain forever. The room, illuminated like a stage when the curtain lifts as he turned on the light. The crib, bathed in the glow.