Something tightened around his heart. He woke her with kisses, and with the touch of his hand on her breast.
“Lara,” he whispered.
Her eyes opened and she smiled sleepily. “Slade? What is it?”
What, indeed? She lived in the South, he in the Northeast. What was he going to say? That he’d fly down to see her every weekend? He didn’t see any woman every weekend. Well, yeah, he’d been known to establish relationships that lasted a couple of months, but getting involved with a woman who lived in the same city wasn’t like getting involved with one who lived hundreds of miles away.
“Leave a toothbrush here,” she’d say, “and some clothes.” And then she’d expect him to show up on Fridays instead of Saturdays, and leave on Monday instead of Sunday, and who knew? Sooner or later, maybe she’d say, “You know, I’ve been thinking that I could move up to Boston…”
“Slade?” Lara curved her hand around his stubbled jaw. “What’s the matter?” She smiled. “You look like a little boy who just found out there really isn’t a Santa Claus.”
He forced a smile to his lips and said he’d been hearing snowplows for a while now, that the roads were probably clear. And that he’d been thinking how terrific this had been and how he hoped that someday, if they could work out the details, they might find the time to get together again.
“Ah,” she said, after the barest hesitation, “yes, that sounds good.”
He wondered if he’d hurt her feelings but she lifted her mouth to his and kissed him. She touched him. She made him wild for her and he rolled her beneath him and took her again. When it was over, he lay holding her close. He thought of how much he wanted more of this, more of her. It didn’t have to be every weekend.
He smiled, brought her face to his, and gave her a slow, tender kiss.
“I don’t know your address,” he said softly, “or your phone number.”
And she smiled and stroked a lock of hair back from his eyes.
“I’ll write it all down,” she whispered, “in the morning.”
But when he awoke, in the morning, it was to sunshine, the sound of snowplows and cars and jet engines screaming overhead—and to an empty place in the bed.
Lara was gone. No note. No message. He didn’t even know her last name.
She’d run out on him while he slept, and he’d been furious. He’d tried telling himself she had no way of knowing he’d wanted more than the one night, but it didn’t take away the feeling that he’d been—well, that somehow, he’d been used.
What he did know was that what he’d felt making love to her, the sense that something special was happening, had been his imagination. Sex with a beautiful stranger, every man’s fantasy, was all it had been. And, as he’d flown home, he’d thought about how this wasn’t just going to be a great memory, it would be one hell of a story. I got snowed in in Denver, he’d say, and I ended up in bed with this incredibly hot babe for almost two days.
Except, he never told that story, not to his partners or even to his brothers. And now, all these months later, he was standing at the window in an airport terminal and wondering why he should still dream about the weekend and the woman because he did, dammit, he dreamed about her, about how it had been to make love to her, the stranger with the soft, sweet mouth and the deep blue eyes. He remembered how she’d felt, in his arms. The little sounds she’d made when he moved inside her, when she arched toward him, wrapped her legs around him…
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re pleased to announce that we are now boarding all flights.”
Slade dropped back into reality, realized he was a long way from his gate and ran for his plane.
LARA sat in her office overlooking the Baltimore harbor and told herself the next couple of hours were going to be a piece of cake.
She was ready. More than ready, after two weeks of preparation. She’d gone through the proposal for the new headquarters building more times than she could count. And she’d found the flaws she needed to keep Slade Baron out of Baltimore, and out of her life.
Slade Baron. How perfectly the name suited the man. Lara puffed out a breath, reached for her coffee mug and brought it to her lips. No way he’d have gone through life with a name like Brown or Smith. “Baron,” with all the medieval entitlements it suggested, suited a man like that just fine.
The mug trembled in her hand. She whispered a short, sharp word and put it down before she ended up spilling coffee on her suit. The last thing she needed was to walk into that meeting feeling anything less than perfectly put together.
She’d be fine. Just fine. Of course she would. Lara stroked her hand lightly over the folder on her desk, pushed back her chair and walked to the window. She had a wonderful view from here, straight out over the harbor. A corner office, she thought, with a little smile. It had taken her six long years to work up to one but she’d done it. She had everything she’d ever wanted. A career. A title. A handsome little house in a pleasant neighborhood. And the joy of her life, the very heart of her life…
The intercom buzzed. She swung around and hit the On button.
“Mr. Dobbs’s secretary phoned, Ms. Stevens. Mr. Baron’s plane finally got in. He should be here soon.”
Lara felt her stomach lurch. She touched her fingertips to her forehead, which felt as if somebody with a jackhammer had been working away at it most of the morning.
“Thank you, Nancy. Let me know when the meeting begins, please.”
“Of course, Ms. Stevens.”
The panic was threatening to overwhelm her. Be calm, she told herself again. She’d done what she had to do, that night eighteen months ago in Denver. Heaven knew she didn’t regret it. Slade had been a means to an end, that was all. Just a means to…
His arms, hard around her. His mouth against hers. The feel of him deep within her, and the way he’d held her afterward, as if he cherished her…
Lara shuddered and wrapped her arms around herself. There was no point in thinking that way. She didn’t have to romanticize what she’d done. Slade had gotten what he’d wanted and so had she, and now she had to make sure it stayed like that.
She let her gaze wander out over the water. The day was muggy, the sky filled with clouds. The weather had been very different, when she’d met Slade. Lara closed her eyes. She didn’t want to remember that day…
That day in Denver.
The sky had been a dirty gray, and the snow as thick as feathers spilling from a torn pillow. Lara, trapped in the waiting area at the Denver airport, had felt impatient and irritable.
It was her thirtieth birthday, and this was one hell of a way to celebrate it.
Nothing had gone right for her that entire week, starting with not one but two baby showers for women she worked with, and ending with an ultrapolite kiss-off from Tom. Not that the relationship had gone beyond dinner and the theater but still, it wasn’t pleasant, getting an earnest speech about how she was a wonderful woman, an intelligent woman…
What he’d meant was that they weren’t getting anywhere. She didn’t make men think about white picket fences and wedding rings. Other men had given her the same message, and she thought about that while she waited for the snow to let up.
She knew Tom was right. She had nothing against men. Maybe she was a little cool, a little distant. She’d been told that by a couple of guys. Maybe she didn’t think sex was the mind-blowing experience other women did, but so what? She liked men well enough.
It was just that marriage was something else. In her heart, she knew she really didn’t want to be anybody’s wife. She was self-sufficient and independent, and she’d seen, firsthand, what a mess a man could make of a woman’s life. Her mother, and now her sister, could have been advertisements extolling the benefits of spinsterhood.
No, marriage wasn’t for her, but motherhood was. She’d known that ever since her teens, when she’d
earned pocket money baby-sitting. Having babies was more than a biological need: it was a need of the heart. There was something indescribably wonderful about children. Their trust in you. Their innocence. The way they gave their love, unconditionally, and accepted yours in return.
Lara had all the love in the world to give, but her time was running out. She was thirty, and she figured she had about as much chance of having a child as an Eskimo had of getting conked on the head by a falling coconut. Thirty was far from middle-aged but there were times she felt as if she were the only woman in the world who didn’t have a baby in her arms or in her belly, and that most of the women who did were years her junior.
Like the two girls she worked with. Goodness knew she wished both of them well but watching their excitement at their baby showers, she’d felt an awful emptiness because she’d suddenly known she’d never share that special joy. She knew single women adopted babies all the time but, perhaps selfishly, Lara yearned for a child of her own. She knew about artificial insemination, too, but the thought of knowing little about the prospective father made her uneasy. She’d even considered asking someone like Tom, someone she liked and respected, to make her pregnant, but there’d been an item on the TV news about a man who’d agreed to just such an arrangement until he saw his son. All of a sudden, he’d changed his mind. Now, he was suing for joint custody.
“If I’d picked up a stranger in a bar,” the girl had said, her eyes red and teary, “some guy with looks and enough brains to carry on an intelligent conversation, I’d have my baby but I wouldn’t be in this mess.”
Lara sat thinking all these things on that fateful afternoon in Denver, while she waited for the snow to stop.
The public address system bleated out guarded encouragement from time to time, but you didn’t need a degree in meteorology to see that the storm was getting worse instead of better. After a while, she collected her computer and her carry-on, made her way to the first-class lounge, found a seat and settled in. Her mood was as foul as the weather. She took out her computer and turned it on. Solitaire was mindless; she could play it until her brain went numb.