LARA came awake abruptly, heart pounding, lungs straining for breath, the demons of her nightmare snapping at her heels.
The dream had been terrifying. She’d been in a strange room, in a distant land…
It wasn’t a dream. It was real. She was in a bedroom in Slade’s house. Her own room, with its pale yellow walls and windows overlooking a small garden, was hundreds of miles away.
She was trapped here, trapped here with—
Lara bolted upright in the bed. “Michael?”
Fear flooded her senses. She’d fallen asleep with her arm around her baby but he wasn’t there anymore. The only thing lying next to her was a teddy bear.
“Michael,” she said, her voice rough with fright.
She tumbled from the bed and searched the room, got on her knees, peered under all the furniture, opened the closet and checked the bathroom.
Her baby was gone.
Frantic now, she ran to the door and flung it open. Ahead, sunshine flooded a skylight that illuminated the dangerous twists and turns of a spiral staircase.
“Michael,” she whispered as her heart raced into triple-time. “Oh God, Michael…”
A peal of childish laughter rang through the silent house. Lara swung around, listening, her hand at her throat.
“Michael?” she whispered, and the sound came again, this time as a bright counterpoint to the deeper, full-throated laugh of a man. Lara ran down the hall, past closed doors, following what had become giddy squeals and chortles to an open doorway at the end of the corridor…
And found Slade’s bedroom, and his bed, and the source of all the laughter.
Slade lay sprawled on his back in a tangle of pale blue sheets. Michael sat on his belly, leaning back against Slade’s upraised legs. They were holding hands, the man and the child, Michael’s tiny fists lost within Slade’s grasp.
“All aboard,” Slade said, and gently tugged first Michael’s left hand, then his right. “Choo choo choo. Choo-choo-choo. Choochoochoo…”
Michael guffawed. Laughter bubbled out of his mouth as he played with Slade. With the stranger who wanted to be his father.
Lara strode into the room. “What in hell do you think you’re doing with my son?”
The giggles stopped. Michael looked around and Slade raised his head. She marched to the bed—a bed far larger than any human being needed for something so simple as sleeping—and snatched her baby into her arms.
Michael’s mouth trembled. “Ma-ma-ma?”
“I’m here, sweetheart,” Lara crooned, but her tone changed when she looked at Slade. He was sitting up and now she realized he was wearing nothing but a pair of white silk boxer shorts. She felt a sudden rush of heat, and that only made her more angry. “I asked you a question, Slade. Just what were you doing with my child?”
Michael whimpered and tucked his thumb into his mouth. Slade’s eyes flashed a warning as he swung his legs to the carpeted floor.
“Hey, Mike,” he said gently, “it’s okay. Your mom was probably worried about you, that’s all.”
“Probably?” Lara glared at him. “I wake up and find my son missing and you think I was probably worried?”
“Look, I’m sorry you were upset.” Slade ruffled the baby’s hair. “I woke up and heard him crying. When he kept crying, I went in and got him.”
“If he’d cried, I’d have heard him.”
“He was crying, okay?” Slade got to his feet. “What’d you want me to do? Leave you a note?”
“You could have—” Her gaze swept over him and her face pinkened. “Do you mind?”
“Do I mind what?”
“Must you walk around like—like that?”
Slade looked down at his shorts, then at her. “These, you mean?”
“Yes.” Her voice was almost as rigid as her spine. “I realize this is your house but a little decorum—”
Slade laughed. “This is a little decorum. I sleep in the raw but I stopped long enough this morning to put on a pair of shorts before I went to rescue my son.” His gaze swept over her, taking in her sleep-ruffled hair, then skimming down the T-shirt she’d slept in. “Seems to me you’re not dressed for a meeting with the Queen, either.”
Her blush darkened. “I was frantic,” she said. “When I couldn’t find my baby—”
“Yeah,” he said gruffly. “Okay. Never mind.”
He swung away from her and told himself he really was going around the bend. Lace was sexy. Lace, and silk. Not T-shirts, certainly not an oversize T-shirt that had come out of his bureau drawer. She hadn’t wanted to take it but she had nothing else. He’d had a couple of bad minutes during the night, lying sleepless in his bed, picturing Lara sleeping just down the hall and how she looked in that shirt.
Now, he could see what he’d only imagined. The faint outline of her nipples. The shadowed darkness at the juncture of her thighs, and the long length of her legs. She was warm and rosy from sleep, half-naked in his bedroom, and she was his wife…
Oh, hell, he thought, and he pulled a pair of jeans from his closet.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said gruffly, as he stepped into the jeans and zipped them up. “You were asleep. I got him, I diapered him, I fed him—”
“You diapered him?”
“More or less. Don’t look so amazed. I just followed the instructions on the box.”
“And you fed him? How would you know what to feed a baby?”
“It was easy.” Slade sauntered toward her, his fly zipped but the button on his jeans undone, his hands tucked into his back pockets. “I just asked myself what I would want, first thing in the morning. So I made Mike some crisp bacon, a mushroom and onion omelet, some home fries, black coffee…”
The look of horror on her face made him laugh. “Relax, Sugar. I let him slop his way through some orange juice while I scrambled him an egg and made a slice of toast.” He grinned at the baby, who grinned back. “And Mike ate every bit of it, didn’t you
“His name,” Lara said coldly, “is Michael.”
“Michael’s too formal for a guy and his dad.” Slade held out his arms. Lara tried to hang onto her son but he lunged for his father. “We like Mike just fine, don’t we, buddy?”
She watched in silence as Slade lifted the baby high in the air. Michael squealed and kicked his arms and legs.
“Da-da,” he said exuberantly.
“That’s right, buddy. I’m your daddy.”
“He didn’t say that.”
Slade looked at her and she blushed. She knew how she’d sounded, overprotective and angry, but she couldn’t help it. Twenty-four hours had passed, one short day, and she was already losing her son.
“Sure he did. Mikey? Who’m I?” He held the baby up again and grinned at him. “Say, Daddy. Come on, pal. Let’s hear it. Dad-dy. Dad-dy…”
“He’s too young to talk,” Lara said brusquely.
“He says Mama, or something that passes for it.”
“He just makes sounds. Anyway, that’s different. I’m his mother.”
“And I’m his father,” Slade said, his voice suddenly cool. “The sooner you get used to that, the better.”
“You don’t know anything about Michael. Not anything.”
“Trust me, baby. You don’t want to start down that road.” Slade forced a smile to his lips. “Anyway, it worked out fine. He likes playing Choo-Choo Train, and he’s partial to his old man’s scrambled eggs.”
“Didn’t it ever occur to you to ask me what he eats?”
“I told you, you were asleep. So I called Helga.”
A cold fist seemed to twist around Lara’s heart. “Helga,” she said brightly. “Really.”
“And she said—”
“Oh, I can just imagine what she said. Caviar. Champagne. Maybe some paté…”
“Don’t you tell me what to—”
“I said, stop it. You’re scaring the hell out of my son.”
“Your son? Your son?” Michael began to cry. Lara glared at Slade and took the baby from him. “Now see what you’ve done,” she snapped, and marched from the room before she could make herself look even more foolish.