The crude words made her blanch but she kept her head up. “I don’t have to defend my morality to you.”
“No. You don’t. All I give a damn about is that your story’s a lie. You were never married. That ring on your finger’s strictly for show.”
“You can’t possibly know—”
“I know everything except why you wanted to let my son grow up thinking he had no father.”
“For the last time, Slade. He’s not—”
“Stop lying to me!” His eyes burned into hers. “When you knew you were carrying my child, why didn’t you tell me? Did you think I’d tell you to take a hike? You knew my first name, my profession, where I lived…you could have found me if you really wanted to try but okay, I’ll grant that maybe you didn’t know how to go about it.” He took a harsh breath. “Then Dobbs handed you that file, and it was all there. Everything you needed. My address. My phone number.”
“What is this, Slade? Something you lifted out of a cheap soap opera, with lots of dramatic twists and turns, and me as the villain? It’s fiction. Fiction, do you understand? None of it ever happened.”
“And when I showed up,” he said, ignoring her protests, “you did everything you could to make me disappear.”
Lara stared at him. Every instinct told her to leap to her feet and run. But she knew it would be a mistake, that the only way to face down a predator was to show no weakness.
Carefully she took a napkin from the dispenser on the table. She blotted her lips, put the napkin on the table and slid across the banquette.
“This has been very interesting,” she said calmly, and wondered if he could see the pulse beating in her throat. “I mean, listening to someone’s fantasies is fascinating. But it’s late, and I have to get home.” She rose to her feet. “Good night, Slade. With any luck at all, we’ll never have the misfortune of seeing each other again.”
She turned and walked toward the door, every sense attuned to the scene she’d left behind. The hard-faced man, still sitting in the booth. The cold eyes, boring holes into her spine. She waited for the sound of him coming after her but there was only silence and, gradually, her steps quickened until she was running…
He caught her just as she reached the parking lot behind the diner. Her car keys were in her hand; she heard the pound of his feet and tried, desperately tried, to force the key into the door lock but his hands fell on her shoulders and he spun her toward him.
“Don’t you want to ask me how I know so much, Sugar?” His teeth shone in a malice-filled smile. “The lies you spun about being married. The details of my son’s birth.”
“Let go of me! Let go, you bastard, or—”
“Michael’s the bastard,” Slade growled, “thanks to your deceit.”
“What do you want?” The cry tore from her throat. She pulled loose from his grasp and fell back against the car.
“The truth, damn you! I have a son to claim.”
She felt the blood roaring in her ears. “No. He’s not—”
Slade slapped a hand against her car on either side of her, trapping her with his body. His chest, rock-hard, brushed hers. She could almost feel the waves of hot anger coming off him.
“I’ve already arranged for DNA tests,” he said softly. “Considerin’ the circumstances surroundin’ his conception, and the lies you’ve woven ever since, I don’t think I’d have any trouble suin’ for—and gettin’—custody.”
He’d fallen into his Texas drawl. It softened the cruel words but it emphasized his determination. He’d do it, Lara thought frantically. He’d take the matter to court, if he had to, and what chance would she have then?
The world had been reduced to this moment. To the implacable will of Slade Baron, who didn’t give a damn for anybody but himself.
“What happened, baby?” He bared his teeth in a terrifying parody of a smile. “Did you forget to take your pill? Did you chicken out about getting rid of your mistake, when you realized you’d gotten yourself knocked up?”
“My son isn’t a mistake. He’s the love of my life, you—you son of a bitch! I wanted him. You hear that? I wanted my baby. It’s the only reason I went with you that day, the only reason I let you touch me.” She saw the shock in his eyes and it gave her the courage to continue. “I wanted to get pregnant, Slade. I’d thought about it for a long, long time, and I’d come up with a million ways to do it, but nothing seemed right.” She drew a breath. “And then fate and a snowstorm dropped you in my path.”
“Bull! You slept with me because you were as hot for me as I was for you.”
It was true. She’d slept with him—made love with him—because Slade was the first man, the only man, who’d made her forget everything she knew about right and wrong. Somewhere during that long, incredible night, she’d admitted the truth to herself, that she was in his bed because of what he made her feel, not for what he could give her.
But she would never admit that to him. Not now. Not ever. It would make her far too vulnerable—and he would never believe it.
“You came along when I was at the right point in my cycle.” Her voice shook, but she forced the words out so that they were cool and clear. “You were healthy, you seemed intelligent. Your looks were acceptable. And I knew, from the way you talked, that you’d be able to—to perform.”
She saw what the effect her words had. He stiffened, his face hardening until it seemed all shadows and angles. He lifted his hand, curled it around her throat and she knew he was close to forgetting everything he knew about civilized behavior.
“A stud?” he said softly. “Is that what I was?”
“You’re hurting me, Slade.”
“Lara Stevens’s private stud service.”
“I wanted a baby.”
“You wanted.” He laughed, and it sent a chill down her spine. “You wanted a baby.”
“Yes. I know you may not think it but I’m a good moth—”
She gasped and rose on her toes as his hand pressed harder, his thumb just in the hollow of her throat.
“And what I might have wanted didn’t matter.”
“It had nothing to do with you.”
“Do you hear what you’re saying, woman? You used me to get pregnant, gave birth to my kid and it had nothing to do with me?”
For the first time since that night, Lara felt a whisper of uncertainty. It had all seemed so right. So pragmatic. No, she thought, no, this wasn’t a time to question what she’d done.
“It’s not as if I wanted anything from you,” she said quickly. “I still don’t. Michael is mine. I carried him for nine months. I gave birth to him, I’m raising him—”
“Do you have any idea how I felt when I looked in that crib Friday night and saw my son? My son, Lara, only I was never supposed to know him, and he was never going to know me.
He was going to grow up thinking his old man was some no good bastard that ran out on his mother, that left him to grow up without a father…”
“He has me,” Lara said sharply. “He doesn’t need a father.”
“I never figured on being a father. I’d seen my family’s mistakes in the marriage wars—”
“This has nothing to do with marriage. A woman doesn’t have to have a husband to be a good mother.”
“—I’d seen them, Lara. And I told myself, no way would I make the same mess of my life.” He drew a shuddering breath. “But I thought about it sometimes, about what it might be like, to have a family. And I promised myself that if I ever did make a dumb move, get married, have kids, I’d be a good father, one my kid could love instead of—”
Bright lights lit the parking lot. Slade swung around, shading his eyes from the glare. A police car pulled up alongside them.
“Hell,” he muttered, and jammed his hands into his pockets.
“Everything okay here?” An officer stepped from the car, flashlight in hand, and shone the light on Lara. “Lady? You okay?”
She swallowed dryly. “Yes. Yes, thank you, I’m fine.”
“We got a call from the diner. Somebody said you didn’t look too happy when you left and that this guy went after you.” He swung the light and Slade blinked under its merciless glare. “You got some ID, pal?”
Slade took out his wallet and handed it over. “There’s no problem, Officer. The lady and I, ah, we had a difference of opinion.”
“She your wife?”
“No. She’s my fiancée. We, ah, we were discussing the plans for our wedding.” The policeman gave him back his wallet and Slade flashed a man-to-man grin as he pocketed it. “You know how it is. She wants all the trimmings and I just want to stand up in front of a J.P.”
“Is that right, ma’am?”
Lara looked at Slade. He was smiling at her but she could see the warning in his eyes.
“Yes. It was—it was something like that.”
The officer chuckled as he got back into his cruiser. “Take my advice, pal, and keep at it. Nobody in his right mind needs to go through the hoopla of a formal wedding.”