Lara stared at him. What did the threat mean? That he’d see her in court? Or that he’d take her in his arms, as he had last night, and make a sham of her pathetic attempt at defiance?
“I hate you,” she said, her voice trembling. “Do you hear me, Slade? I hate you! You can play your tin-god games with my life and with my son’s, but you can’t change the way I feel. I hate you, and I always will.”
Something dark and dangerous flashed in his eyes but he spoke with a dispassionate calmness that only frightened her more.
“Are you packed?”
“Packed? No.” Lara’s heartbeat fluttered. “We didn’t discuss—”
“It doesn’t matter.” He brushed past her. “In fact, I prefer it that way.”
“You prefer…?” She rushed after him as he headed toward Michael’s room. “He’s sleeping. Don’t—”
Her breath caught. Michael was clinging to the crib rail, swaying unsteadily as he stared, round-eyed, at Slade.
“Hi there,” Slade said softly. “Hi, Mike.”
“His name is Michael. And he’s frightened of strangers. You can’t just—”
But he already had. He’d lifted Michael from the crib. And her son, her beloved, traitorous little boy, gazed solemnly into the face that was an adult version of his, and smiled.
“Hey, Mike,” Slade whispered. The baby put a plump hand against his mouth and he kissed it, inhaling baby-sweet scents that were as foreign as they were welcome. He swallowed hard. There was a lump in his throat the size of a tennis ball. My son, he thought. My flesh and blood.
He turned at a muffled sound and saw Lara standing behind him, hand pressed to her lips, eyes wide and bright with tears. She looked like a woman who’d lost everything and, just for an instant, he almost felt sorry for her—but then he thought of what he had lost, the months without knowing he had a son, the years that would have been lost to Michael if he’d grown up without knowing he had a father, and his heart hardened.
“If there’s anything here you really want,” he said coldly, “get it now.”
“I don’t—” Her voice trembled. “I don’t understand.”
“And pack whatever my son will need.”
“He’s my son. Mine, Slade. I planned him. I gave birth to him. I’ve raised him without any help from you—”
“Do it. And do it quickly. We have a lot to accomplish before one o’clock.”
Lara stared at him. “What?”
“The meeting with Dobbs. And, at noon, the wedding—”
“No.” Lara shook her head wildly. “No!”
“—and,” he said, as if she hadn’t spoken, “our plane leaves at one.”
“Our plane?” She wrapped her arms around herself, as if that might stop her from trembling. “Slade. Slade, listen to me. You have to be reasonable. I—I have a life here. A home—”
“Your Mrs. Krauss is waiting in a taxi downstairs. She’s agreed to take care of my son while you and I see Dobbs, and then the justice of the peace.”
“How do you know about her? Have you been spying on me?”
“You can list your house with a rental agent or sell it. You won’t be coming back to it.”
“You have been spying!”
“I’ve been collecting information, Sugar. It’s easy enough to get, if you really want it.”
Lara knew his barbed remark had a second meaning but she ignored it. All she cared about, all that mattered, was regaining control of her life.
“Slade, listen to me. Think about what you’re doing. You’re asking me to give up everything. My job. My career—”
“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you.” He smiled thinly. “You want a career? Well, you have one. You’re going to be a mother and a wife, and you’d damned well better do a good job at both.”
She shrank back as he strode past her. Slade told himself that was fine. It was the way it should be. Hell, after what she’d done to him, she deserved everything that happened…
But the fear in her eyes, and the despair, made his heart feel heavy as he carried his son away.
* * *
At nine, Lara stood beside Slade in Edwin Dobbs’s office. His arm felt like a steel clamp around her shoulders as he explained that they’d fallen deeply in love almost at first sight. She wasn’t sure which seemed phonier, the smile on his face or the story he’d invented, and she waited for the Beaufort chairman to laugh.
Instead he smiled.
“I know bankers aren’t supposed to admit to being romantics at heart, but I am,” Dobbs said. “I must admit, though, I’m stunned.”
“So are we,” Slade said, tightening his arm around her. Lara knew the gesture looked affectionate but she could feel the warning bite of each finger in her flesh. “Aren’t we, darling?”
Did he expect her to help him? No way. Slade had choreographed this show; let him do the dance by himself.
“And you’re getting married immediately?” Dobbs laughed, shook his head in pleased disbelief. “When did all this happen?”
“Who knows the exact moment a man and woman fall in love, Edwin?” There was a smile in Slade’s voice but the pressure of his arm was still unyielding. “Lara was going to tell you herself but I thought you’d appreciate hearing the news from the both of us.”
“Well, that’s wonderful for you, Slade,” Dobbs said, as if Lara weren’t there. He chuckled. “Bad news for me, though. I’m losing a fine executive.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Dobbs,” Lara said. “I wish—I wish it were different.”
“She means,” Slade said briskly, “she wishes she could give you more notice.” He looked down at her. “I’m sure Edwin understands, darling.”
“If you insist,” she said quickly to Dobbs, “I could stay on for a couple of weeks.”
“And miss your own honeymoon?”
The chairman laughed. Slade laughed. They both looked at her as if she were feebleminded and she thought, for one awful minute, they’d chuck her under the chin, these two men busily arranging her life as if she had no stake in it.
Nonsense, Dobbs said. She was the model of efficiency. He was sure her assistant could take over with hardly a break in stride.
That seemed to sum it up. What was happening—the fact that her life was spinning out of orbit—didn’t seem to matter to anybody but her. Her house was up for sale. Mrs. Krauss was earning a morning’s wages. Dobbs would replace one auditor with another. Everybody was satisfied, except her, but what could a marionette do when somebody was pulling its strings?
An hour later, they stood before a justice of the peace who either believed all brides shook through the all-too-brief ceremony or simply didn’t notice. Mrs. Krauss stood alongside with Michael in her arms. The ceremony took less than five minutes. At the end, when the J.P. said Slade could kiss his bride, Lara stiffened and waited for him to take her in his arms.
Whatever he might expect, she would not kiss him.
That she’d responded to
him last night was a sign of weakness, and weakness could be overcome. The bottom line was that sex wasn’t going to part of this farce of a marriage, not unless Slade was into rape and she was sure he wasn’t. He was everything she despised, and she hated him for what he’d done to her, but she knew he was a man who’d never force a woman into his bed.
He hadn’t needed force with her, eighteen months ago. And she, pathetic fool that she was, would pay for that night for the rest of her life.
But Slade didn’t touch her. He didn’t look at her. He thanked the J.P., shook his hand, clasped Lara’s elbow in a gesture so impersonal it was meaningless and led her outside. Two limousines were waiting, one to take Mrs. Krauss to her home, one to take Lara, Slade and Michael to the airport.
Lara’s heart congealed into a hard, cold lump. She grabbed Mrs. Krauss, who looked startled, and hugged her.
“Goodbye,” she said, through a veil of tears. Then she stepped into the car that awaited. Slade got in with Michael in his arms. The door slammed shut behind him with an awful finality.
She’d played a dangerous game—she knew that now. She’d won Michael, but she’d lost everything else. Her pride. Her independence. Her freedom.
She wasn’t Lara Stevens anymore. She was Slade Baron’s bride.
* * *
They sat side by side in the first-class compartment of the jet, two strangers with nothing between them but a night of passion.
And a child.
Lara shuddered and drew her son closer in her arms. He was asleep, his dark head against her breast, his teddy bear clutched in his arm. He’d cried the first few minutes of the flight, wrenching sobs the sympathetic flight attendant said were probably the result of the change in pressure on his eardrums. It was a logical explanation and yet Lara’s heart told her the baby’s tears were for the life they were leaving behind, and for the unknown existence that lay ahead.
Slade had tried to soothe Michael’s tears. He’d wanted to take him from her arms but Lara had clung fast.
“I’ll hold him,” she’d said.
His eyes had darkened and she’d waited for him to insist. But he hadn’t. He’d simply opened his briefcase and pulled out a stack of papers. In minutes, she could see that he’d forgotten all about Michael.