“Absolutely,” Slade said, and smiled—but his smile faded when he turned to Lara again as the patrol car’s taillights winked, then faded into the night. “Picking me for your stud service was a bad idea.”
“Look.” She exhaled sharply and tucked her hands into the back pockets of her jeans. “Maybe I—maybe I shouldn’t have made such a—a unilateral decision…”
Color rose in her face at his bark of harsh laughter.
“Do the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ have any meaning in your world, Sugar?”
“I wanted a child, Slade. And I promise you, I’ll raise him with love. You don’t have to worry about that. About anything. I told you, I don’t want anything from you.”
“You already have it. My donation to your own private sperm bank.” A muscle knotted in his jaw. “That was all you wanted from me that day. Isn’t that what you said?”
“I—yes. Yes, that’s right.”
He moved toward her. She took a step back but with the car behind her, there was no place to go.
“Why me?” She flinched as he reached out and ran the back of his hand along her cheek but though his voice was rough, his touch was gentle. “You wanted a man in your bed, you could have had your choice. How come I was the lucky sap?”
“I told you.” His hand was in her hair, his fingers warm against her scalp. His breath was warm, too, almost a caress against her skin. “You were—you had the right attributes. And you were there at the right time.”
He looked into her eyes. “You trembled in my arms.”
“I—I don’t see what this has to do with anything. Slade, please—”
“That’s what you said to me when I kissed you, the first time. Please, you said, Slade, please…”
He lowered his head, slowly, slowly, even as his brain asked him what in hell he was doing. He didn’t want her. She’d used him. Lied to him. She’d have gone on lying, she’d have kept him from the truth, if it hadn’t been for a quirk of fate.
He paused, a whisper from her lips. Her eyes were wide and fixed on his. His thumb lay in the hollow of her throat again and he could feel the race of her heart.
“Tell me the truth,” he said huskily. “That you wanted me, not just a substitute for a test tube.”
He gathered her close. She was rigid but a little sound escaped her, a soft moan that filled him with triumph. He slid his hands down the length of her back, cupped her bottom and lifted her into the V of his legs, into the hardness of his arousal.
She moaned again, lifted her hands to push him away. Instead she curled her fingers into his shirt, teetered on the brink of lunacy…
With a cry, she tore herself from his arms.
“All right.” She shuddered with the enormity of the admission. “It’s true. Michael is your son.”
Slade bowed his head. For one heart-stopping instant, she almost reached out to touch him but she caught herself before she could do anything so foolish.
“And—I admit, I might have made a couple of poor decisions.”
He looked up, his expression unreadable, his eyes cool and watchful.
“I’ll see to it the birth certificate is changed.” She waited for him to speak but he just went on looking at her. The silence grew unnerving. “And—and I’ll tell him about you, when he’s old enough to understand.”
Still, Slade said nothing.
“Dammit,” she said, “what more do you want?”
“You don’t pay attention, Sugar, or you wouldn’t need to ask. I already told you. I intend to be a father to my boy. A good father.”
Lara ran the tip of her tongue over her bottom lip. Her world was falling apart, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
“All right,” she said unsteadily. “We’ll arrange for—for visiting privileges. You can come to see him, I don’t know, one Saturday a month—”
The softly spoken word oozed sarcasm. Her head came up; she balled her hands into fists. “You think it’s going to be easy, giving him up to you for a Saturday?”
“I don’t much care what it is, for you.” He spoke calmly, which amazed him, because his heart was beating like a drum. “It’s Michael who counts. I don’t want our son to spend Saturdays with a man who’d basically be a stranger.”
Our son. An ominous portent clung to the words but, in her desperation, Lara ignored it.
“What would you suggest, then?” Her heart skipped a beat. “I’m not going to let you take him away from me, Slade. I swear, if you try—”
She stared up at him, into those unreadable eyes. “What?”
“We’re going to be married. Tomorrow.” His words were clipped. She thought, crazily, that he might have been arranging a dental appointment. “At noon.”
She waited for him to laugh. When he didn’t, she gave one bark of hysterical laughter for the both of them.
He grabbed her arm as she turned away and spun her toward him.
“It’s the only solution,” he said coldly. “My son is going to have two parents. A father, and a mother.”
“No! I’d never agree to—”
“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you.” His hand tightened on her. “And you’ll be a good mother to him and a faithful wife to me or so help me, I’ll take him from you.” His eyes burned into hers. “If it comes to that, if he’s only going to have one of us, it’s going to be me. I can do it, Sugar. Don’t make the mistake of thinking I can’t.”
It was the truth. She knew it; he could destroy her life and he would, if she didn’t do what he wanted.
“I hate you,” she whispered. Tears of rage rose in her eyes and streamed down her face. “I hate you, Slade. I’ll always hate you—”
“Hate me,” he said, clasping her face between his hands. “I don’t give a damn. All I want is my son.” He took a breath. “That,” he whispered, “and you in my bed, at night.”
“No,” she said, “Slade, no,” but he didn’t listen. He kissed her, his mouth bruising hers. Lara groaned, at first with despair and then with self-loathing, as she gave herself up to the kiss.
SOME women dreamed about their wedding day.
Lara wasn’t one of them.
She’d never wasted time imagining what it would be like to be a bride. Why would she, when she knew the reality of marriage? Her father’s terrifying anger. Her mother’s soul-wrenching tears and blind obedience to every command he gave until one summer evening, he’d walked out the door and never returned.
Her sister was living that same life now, as if she’d never learned anything from their mother’s misery. Emily was trapped in the same life that had been their mother’s, worn-out and dependent on a man for her survival.
Lara had vowed none of that would ever happen to her. She’d studied hard and made herself financially independent. She’d filled her life with things she loved, travel and music and books, and when she’d felt a gnawing emptiness inside her, she’d realized it wasn’t for a man—what intelligent woman would think it was?
It was for a child of her own. For Michael.
And yet, for all her clever planning, she’d made a terrible mistake.
She’d chosen Slade to be her son’s father for reasons that had seemed so logical. His good looks. His obvious health. His intelligence. That he wasn’t a man who’d want to hang around and stay in her life had suited her plans, and if he’d excited her in a way no man had ever done…well, that was a bonus.
How stupid she’d been.
Looks. Health. Intelligence. Sex appeal. She’d checked them all off, as if they were items on a shopping list. But Slade had another quality, one he’d shown when he’d picked her up that day in Denver, one she’d foolishly not considered.
Slade Baron was the most determined man she’d ever met.
When he wanted something, he went after it and to hell with anything that stood in his path.
He wanted Michael. And today he’d come to lay his claim.
Lara had refused to believe it. She’d spent the night telling herself that what had happened in that parking lot had just been a man showing he was stronger than a woman…until the bell rang, at eight, and she opened the door and saw him standing on the stoop.
“You can’t do this to me, Slade,” were the first words out of her mouth.
“No, ‘good morning, Slade.’ ‘Nice to see you, Slade.’ Just, ‘You can’t do this to me, Slade.’” His tone mocked her. “I’ve already done it, Sugar.” His words turned cold. “Dobbs is expecting us in—” he glanced at his watch “—in just a little over an hour.”
“You’ve spoken with Mr. Dobbs?” The look on his face was all the answer Lara needed, and she felt her despair escalate into fury. “This is my life, damn you. You have no right—”
“I have every right.” His eyes gaze raked over her face, paused at her lips, then lifted to meet hers. “Would you like me to prove it?”