“There’s nothing to talk about, darlin’.”
It was the truth. There wasn’t a way in the world he was about to let anybody know what had happened, not until he knew the details. Not until he confronted Lara and maybe wrung her pretty little neck.
“I’m fine,” he said, and gave her the old Los Lobos salute, to make her laugh. Then he looped an arm around her shoulders, told her she owed him a dance and hustled her inside the house, back to the lights and the noise and the party.
Somehow, he made it through the rest of the evening and the next day, too. He didn’t get much sleep but nobody seemed to notice his bloodshot eyes, maybe because Sunday began with Grant Landon confirming that Jonas wouldn’t leave Espada to Catie even though it was the right thing to do, and ended with Natalie driving off with Landon’s wife and leaving Gage behind. Travis seemed out of it, too. He went into the old man’s study and came out an hour later, looking as if he’d just seen a ghost.
It was a hell of a thing, Slade thought, as he packed his suitcase Sunday afternoon, a hell of a thing to be relieved your brothers were too deep in their own problems to notice yours. He had to be pretty far gone, to feel that way—but not so far gone that he’d forgotten what an intelligent man could do with a charge card, a telephone and a couple of discreet calls to people who could make the right wheels turn.
His airline ticket said Boston but he flew to Baltimore. He’d phone Lara from the airport. That way, she’d have little time to prepare for their confrontation. And he wouldn’t see her at her home. He wanted to meet her somewhere public, where she couldn’t resort to hysterics. Not that he really thought she would; she was far too cool for that but she might try it, when she heard what she’d have to do. It was his decision, his alone. And, he thought grimly, as the plane landed, it was irrevocable.
Her phone rang several times before she picked up. She sounded as if he’d awakened her and for just a second, his mind seized on images of her in bed, all warm and sleepy. If he closed his eyes, he knew he’d be able to feel the silk of her skin, breathe in the scent of her that was all lush, sweet woman…
Warm and sweet weren’t words a man could use, about Lara.
The realization strengthened his reserve. He spoke coldly, without any lead-up or niceties.
“This is Slade,” he said. “Name a place where we can meet.”
She said it was too late. She said she had no intention of seeing him ever again. She spoke calmly but she didn’t bother asking what he wanted. She knew; he could feel it in his bones, and when, suddenly, her calmness gave way and her voice trembled, he knew she was panicked and he felt a savage sense of pleasure.
“I’m not asking you, Lara, I’m telling you. Name a place. A restaurant. A bar. I don’t give a damn. Just name it, get yourself a baby-sitter and meet me in an hour.” He paused, just long enough to make the next words count. “Or I’ll show up at your office tomorrow morning and we’ll deal with this thing publicly.”
There was silence, and then he heard her take a breath.
“There’s a diner,” she said. Her voice trembled again as she gave him the address. This time, she made no attempt to hide her distress, and that pleased him even more.
“One hour,” he said, and hung up.
* * *
Lara put down the telephone. He knew. God, he knew!
What was he going to do?
Nothing. What could he do? He had no proof, just that one, quick look at Michael. As long as she stood up to him, denied everything, as long as she showed him that he couldn’t intimidate her, she’d be fine.
But she had to deal with him tonight. If he came to her office and made a scene, her job would be history.
She called Mrs. Krauss. The baby-sitter was grumpy; there was probably nothing new in that but she said yes, very well, she’d come right away, for double pay and cab fare.
Lara went into the bedroom and looked down at her sleeping son. She touched his back, smoothed her hand over his soft black curls. He was hers, and there was nothing Slade could do to change that.
She threw on jeans and a T-shirt and left her house the minute Mrs. Krauss arrived.
Slade was waiting for her at a booth in the rear of the diner. The place was half-empty at this hour on a Sunday night. The waitresses were standing at the coffee machine, whispering and shooting little looks in his direction. Why wouldn’t they? He was a man whose looks attracted women, made them do things they’d only fantasized.
Lara knew that, better than anyone.
He rose when she reached the booth. A matter of habit, she knew; she’d get no acts of courtesy from him tonight. He looked different, not just because of the taut set of his lips but because of the way he was dressed. She’d only seen him in suits and ties. Now he was wearing a tight black T-shirt. His biceps were prominent, as were the muscles in his forearms, and there was a ripple of muscle in his chest. He wore faded, snug jeans and scuffed cowboy boots.
He looked hard and masculine and dangerous, an outlaw of the Old West reincarnated on a hot June night on the Maryland shore.
Terror beat its heavy wings inside her breast as she slipped into the booth opposite him. She told herself to show nothing, say nothing. Let Slade do all the talking. It was her only plan.
One of the waitresses materialized beside the booth, with a mug and a pot of coffee.
“The gentleman said you’d want some.”
Lara noticed the mug of black liquid in front of Slade. She nodded. “Yes, that’s fine.”
“Anything else? Some pie? The cherry is home—”
“Nothing,” Slade said, his eyes riveted to Lara’s face.
The waitress left in a rush. Lara didn’t blame her. Slade was like a tightly wound spring. One touch, and he’d snap. She wrapped her hands around the mug, letting the heat of the liquid warm her suddenly frigid hands.
“Did you really think you could fool me, Lara?”
His voice was soft and menacing. It made her want to race for the door but she looked up from her coffee and met his cold look with a little smile. “Honestly, Slade, you’d think a woman had never turned you down before. Your ego must be awfully fragile for you to—”
He slammed his fist against the table. Lara’s heart jumped along with the coffee.
“Don’t play games with me, dammit.”
“I’m not. I’m simply saying—”
“There’s nothing ‘simple’ about you, baby.” He leaned toward her, his eyes dark and burning in his face. “Michael is my son.”
Lara laughed. She tried to, anyway, but the sound she made was a pathetic bleat.
“Michael? Your son? Where did you get such a crazy—” Her breath caught as Slade grabbed her wrist. “You’re hurting me.”
“You’re lucky I’m not beating you senseless.” His hand tightened on hers. “No games, I said. He’s mine. I want to hear you admit it.”
“I’m not going to tell you something that’s not true.”
She was good. Very good. Her gaze was unflinching, her chin determined. But he could feel the telltale race of her pulse under his fingers. He eased his grip but his eyes never left hers.
“Listen to me,” he said softly. “We can do this whatever way you like. The truth would be the easy way.”
“I told you the truth. Michael isn’t—”
“Or we can do it the hard way. Lawyers. Judges. DNA tests.” He let go of her wrist. He saw the marks of his fingers before she dropped her hand into her lap and he got a funny feeling, as if he wanted to grab her hand and press his lips to the bruises but then he thought, what the hell was wrong with him? Let her feel a little of the kind of pain he was feeling. “Your choice, baby.”
“Slade, listen to me. Michael isn’t yours. I don’t know why you’d think—”
“I don’t think, I know! My son was born nine months to the day—to the damned day, Lara—after we slept together.”
e paled. “You can’t possibly know when Michael was born!”
“September 19.” His words fell like stones between them. “Can you count backward to that night we were together, or shall I do it for you? He was born at 7:05 in the evening. He weighed seven pounds five ounces.” His mouth twisted. “And when they asked the name of his father, to enter on his birth certificate, you told them to write ‘Father Unknown.’” His voice roughened. “‘Father Unknown,’ Lara. How could you do such a thing to my son?”
Lara clasped her hands together. Her fingers were colder than ice.
“For the last time, Michael isn’t your son. I told you. My husband—”
“If you had a husband, and he was the boy’s father, how come his name isn’t on that certificate?”
Oh, God! She stared at Slade, feeling the cold spread through her blood. Think, she told herself, think!
“It was—it was because we were in the middle of getting divorced. And—and my husband…”
“You don’t have a husband. You’ve never had a husband. When you want a man you just go someplace and pick one up. Why limit yourself to one guy if you can screw the brains out of as many as you like?”