“Well, then, what? Speak up, boy. I ain’t no mind reader.”
Slade’s jaw tightened. “No,” he said coldly, “you aren’t. If you were, you’d know that if you call me ‘boy’ one more time, I’m just liable to—”
“Well, will you look at that?” Jonas chuckled, tossed away his cigar and turned towards his son. “You got some gumption left in you, I see. That pansy stuff you do ain’t completely destroyed your backbone.”
“I design office buildings,” Slade said through his teeth, despising himself for sounding defensive. “Damned fine ones, which you’d know if you occasionally took your nose out of your—”
“The one in Noo York City ain’t bad a-tall.”
Slade blinked. “The Stahl building. You’ve seen it?”
“’Course, I like the one in Philadelphia better. Nice lines to that, what do you call it, that indoor park thing with the fancy waterfalls on all them levels?”
“An atrium.” Slade heard the disbelief in his own voice and he cleared his throat. “When did you see my buildings?”
“Oh, I get around.” Jonas grinned at him. “Man wants to see what his offspring are up to, even if he don’t approve.”
“Well.” Slade told himself to say something intelligent but nothing would come. “Well,” he said again, “that’s—that’s very interesting.”
“You’d be surprised what a man thinks, when he gets to be my age.”
“You’re not old,” Slade said, and meant it. “Hell, Pop, I hope I look half as good as you when Catie tosses me my eighty-fifth birthday party.”
He waited for his father to chuckle but the old man didn’t. Instead he reached into his hip pocket and took out a silver flask.
“Bourbon,” he said, unscrewing the top. “Have a sip.”
Bourbon, Slade thought, of course. Jonas loved the stuff, which was probably why his sons all hated it. Still, he took the flask, nodded his thanks and tilted it to his lips, though he let only the slightest amount of liquid trickle down his throat. He couldn’t recall ever sharing a companionable moment with his father before and he wasn’t going to ruin it over a taste of bourbon.
“Thanks,” he said, and tried not to shudder.
Jonas’s teeth flashed in a quick grin. “You’re welcome.” He took a long swallow, sighed with satisfaction and put the top back on the flask. “So, you figure your stepsister’s gonna throw you a big party the day you turn eighty-five.”
Slade laughed. “Something like that.”
“Why should she?”
Jonas’s voice was cool. Slade frowned and looked at him. “I’m just joking.”
“I know you are, but think about it. Why should she do that? By then, she’ll have a husband of her own. Children. Probably even grandchildren.” He reached into his breast pocket, took out another cigar, bit off the tip and spat it into the darkness. “You want somebody to give a damn what happens to you as the years go by, boy, you need to have yourself some sons.” Jonas took a gold lighter from his pocket, flicked it on and slowly lit his cigar. “Unless,” he said lazily, “you don’t need that advice.”
“I don’t. I’m capable of planning my own life, Father. I have been, ever since I turned eighteen.”
The old man blew out a plume of cigar smoke. “What I meant was, maybe you don’t need that advice because you already started arrangin’ for some heirs.”
Slade’s heart seemed to kick against his ribs. “What are you talking about?”
“Babies.” Jonas puffed out a series of perfect smoke rings. “You know what those are, boy, and you know how to make ’em. Leastways, you been practicin’ ever since Dan Archer’s wife gave you that extra-special birthday present all them years ago.”
“Never mind that,” Slade said tightly. Without thinking, he reached out and grasped the older man’s arm. “What kind of crack was that, Father? About me already producing heirs?”
“I didn’t say that, exactly.”
“What did you say, exactly?”
“I simply said that a man who beds a lot of women is liable to find he may have left one of ’em with more than happy memories.” Jonas looked pointedly at his son’s hand, wrapped around his arm. “You gonna rip that sleeve off’n my tux, son? Won’t mean a damn to me. I hate wearin’ the thing, but Marta might mind me comin’ back into my own party lookin’ like I been stomped by a mean bull.”
Slade followed his father’s gaze. It looked like he had a death grip on his biceps. Slowly, deliberately, he let go.
“Not that it’s any of your business,” he said stiffly, “but I’m always careful about protection. For the woman’s sake, and for my own.”
Jonas shrugged. “All it takes is one time. Just once.” His voice roughened, and the easy Texas drawl disappeared. “If men and women play around in bed, they end up payin’ the price.”
“Don’t you think I know that? I just said, I’m always careful.”
Always, except the time he’d taken Lara to that hotel. His hunger had been so deep, his need so intense…it had driven all rational thought from his head. No, she’d said, when he’d wanted to buy condoms, no, it’s not necessary…
Now she had a child. A son, with black hair and gray eyes, and a face so familiar, even in its childish innocence, that it might have been his own. He didn’t know the boy’s age but it looked right. He was no expert on kids but Jack had a nephew who was nine, ten months old.
Yeah. The size was just about the same.
Slade felt as if a fist had landed in his gut. He wrapped his hands around the railing, bent forward and took a gasping breath. There was no use telling himself not to think about it. He knew what he’d seen, what it meant—and what he had to do.
He turned to Jonas. “Pop…”
But there was nobody standing next to him. His father was gone. The only lingering sign he’d been there was the glowing stub of a Cuban cigar.
SLADE stood on the deck, alone, and stared blindly into the shadowy darkness.
An owl cried out in the distance, its eerie call piercing the silence. He thought of the terror the sound must strike into the hearts of the tiny night-creatures, of how they’d freeze, then scuttle desperately for sanctuary. Their flight would be useless. Nothing would elude the owl’s fierce eye and the bite of its razor-sharp talons.
Slade wrapped his hands tightly around the railing, until his knuckles shone white.
He had fathered a child. A son. And Lara had not told him. She’d been determined to keep his parenthood a secret but he knew it, now, and she would no more escape his fury than the denizens of the night would escape the owl.
Did she think he wouldn’t give a damn that he’d helped create a life?
ans hadn’t included having children. Children needed stability. They needed—they deserved—the love of two parents. He’d grown up believing it, knowing, in his heart, that he’d missed something wonderful and knowing, too, that marriage—all the forever after nonsense, the hearts and flowers—were not for him.
Everyone thought he was just a carefree bachelor, cruising from woman to woman for the pleasure of it, but there was more to it than that. The truth was, he didn’t believe in commitment. It didn’t work. Growing up under his father’s cold eye, learning not to get attached to a stepmother because each one came and went in a heartbeat…that life had taught him a lesson.
Marriage, to put it succinctly, was pointless. It didn’t work, especially if your last name was Baron. Just look at the old man, who had chalked up five wives. At Travis, who had been married and divorced quicker than a rattler could strike. At Gage, whose marriage was in trouble…
Slade drew a deep breath, then blew it out.
It was simple. Kids deserved a mother and a father and a happy home, but if you were a Baron you had as much chance of giving a kid that as a snowball had of surviving in hell. It was a truth he’d lived by and, knowing that truth, maybe even fearing it, he’d never made the mistake of planning a future that depended on commitment. Now, Lara Stevens had changed that forever.
He had a child. A son.
Didn’t she think he’d want to know? And what about the boy? The kid sure as hell had the right to know he had a father.
Who was Lara, to play God?
“Slade? Is that you?”
Catie. Slade closed his eyes. Catie, the Queen of Perception. She was the last person he wanted to deal with just now but there wasn’t much choice. He braced his shoulders, turned and smiled.
“Yeah,” he said, “it’s me. What are you doing out here, away from all the fun?”
“I came looking for you.” She put her hand on his arm. “You okay?”
“Sure. Just—just too much noise inside, you know? I figured I’d take a breather.”
“You’re a bad liar,” Caitlin said gently. “Want to talk about it?”