Slade could feel his blood pounding in his ears. He watched as Lara hung up the phone, sighed and lazily stretched her arms over her head.
In that moment, he hated her as he’d never hated another human being in his life. It was all a lie. Everything. The things she whispered, when they made love. The way she looked at him, as if he were the center of her universe.
He wanted to go to her, sling her over his shoulder, carry her down the stairs and throw her out of his house. Or maybe shove her back on that bed, rip off her clothes and unzip his fly and take her even as she fought him off, just take her again and again until she knew goddamned well who she belonged to…
He must have done something, made a sound, because suddenly she looked around.
“Slade.” She bit her lip and rose to her feet and, damn her, she couldn’t even control the gleam of guilt that shone in her eyes. “Slade, you’re home early.”
He said nothing. What could he say, while his wife tried to smile?
“How long have you been standing there?” He could see her throat constrict as she swallowed. “I mean—”
“I know what you mean,” he said, his voice a monotone, barely above a whisper. He shoved his hands deep into his trouser pockets because he was afraid of what he might do with them otherwise. “I know exactly what you mean, Lara.”
She smiled nervously, tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and came toward him. “Did you, ah, did you overhear…?”
The towering wave of fury that threatened to drag him under must have shown on his face because she took a hurried step back when he moved. Not in time, though. He caught her by the shoulders, his hands hard on her flesh but not nearly as hard as the pain he could feel gutting his heart.
“Who is he?” he said. “Who’s the man you’re planning to meet?”
Her mouth dropped open. “What?”
“The man. The son of a bitch on the phone.” He shook her and her hair flew around her face. “Tell me his name!”
“There is no man.” Lara’s voice trembled. “There’s only you.”
Slade let go of her. He wanted to believe her. God, he wanted to.
“You don’t trust me,” she said.
“How can I? You lie as easily as most people breathe.” He caught hold of her again, anguish darkening his eyes. “Tell me who you were talking to.”
Lara stared into her husband’s face. She could tell him, and bare her heart to him, but what was the sense? He might pretend to believe her but the same thing would happen, again and again. Sooner or later, Slade would strip her of everything. Her pride. Her dignity. And perhaps, even, her love. It took love and trust to make a marriage, she thought, just as she’d thought it days before, at the cabin…and Slade wasn’t capable of either, when they involved her.
The realization was shattering, but he would never know it. The only thing left to her now was her pride.
“No,” she said softly, and pulled free of his grasp.
His face twisted. He raised his hand and she waited, head high, for a blow that never came. Instead he swung away from her and pounded his fist into and straight through the wall. He felt her brush past him, heard the clatter of her footsteps on the steps, but he didn’t move.
It was over. His dreams of what might have been, his hopes—everything was finished. He had a wife and a son but nothing else because he knew the truth, now, the truth he’d worked so hard to deny.
His wife was everything he’d thought she was, the embodiment of every female who’d plagued the Baron clan. She was immoral. Deceitful. Unfaithful.
And he, Heaven help him, had fallen in love with her.
DAYLIGHT faded, became dusk. Dusk gave way to nightfall, but Slade hardly noticed.
Lara was gone. She’d left in a cab, an hour ago, and she’d taken Michael with her. He’d watched from the window—watched, and let it happen because he knew now that the world he’d created had been a fantasy. He’d wanted his son to have two parents and a loving home but a man couldn’t orchestrate that any more than he could tell the wind which way to blow.
His heart ached with the loss. Not of Lara—hell, he’d known what she was when he married her. He didn’t love her. A couple of hours sitting here, in the darkening room, and he’d shaken that foolish illusion out of his head.
It was Michael he was going to miss. Slade’s jaw tightened. If Lara thought she was going to keep him out of his son’s life, she was wrong. Tomorrow morning, first thing, he’d phone his attorney, tell him to begin whatever proceedings were necessary to gain custody.
No. Dammit, he couldn’t do that. Slade scrubbed his hands over his eyes. The boy loved his mother and she loved him. And whatever else she was, Lara was a good mother. Joint custody, then. He’d have his son weekends, holidays, summers…let his lawyer work it out.
That was what he should have done, right from the beginning, instead of forcing Lara into marrying him. What a damn-fool thing that had been to do! You designed a building, you could count on it turning out the way you’d intended, but you couldn’t build a family by design. One man, one woman, one child didn’t add up to anything, without love. It wasn’t enough that he loved his son. A marriage wasn’t a marriage without love.
And he had never loved Lara. He’d known that, going in. He’d wanted her, yes. She was incredible in bed but there wasn’t anything else between them…
The phone rang. Slade grabbed it. “Hello,” he snarled, “and whoever this is, I’ll tell you right now, I’m not in the mood for chit-chat.”
“Well, neither am I,” Travis snarled back.
“Trav?” Slade sat on the edge of the bed. “Hey, man. How’d you know I needed to—”
“What the hell is the matter with the female of the species, kid?”
“The fact that they are female. That’s what’s the matter with them.”
“Yeah.” Travis cleared his throat. “The thing is—there’s this woman.”
“There always is.”
“I asked her to move in with me.”
Slade got to his feet. “You what? Listen, before you do anything serious—”
“It isn’t serious. I mean, okay, it’s serious now. But it won’t be serious forever. We have an understanding. We stay together, no strings, no commitments—”
Slade made a choked sound he hoped might pass for a laugh. “They all want commitments. But they want them when they want them, not when you get around to making them.”
“Huh? What are you talking about?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. Look, about this babe—”
“She’s not a ‘babe.’ Her name is Alexandra.”
“Alexandra.” Slade rubbed the back of his neck and told himself to concentrate on what Travis was saying. “Classy name. Wasn’t the babe—the woman who bought you at that auction named Alexandra?”
“What if she was?”
“Hey, there’s no need to get defensive. I’m just surprised, that’s all. I mean, the lady bought you for hot times—”
“Watch how you talk about her,” Travis said coldly.
“All I’m saying is that it’s sort of unusual that she’s become your mistress.”
“She’s not my mistress.”
“What would you call her, then? If she’s living in your house?”
“That’s the problem. She’s got to be called something when I introduce her to people.”
“She has a name, right? So just use it.”
“We’re living together, dammit. How do I let people know that?”
I have a wife who hates me, Slade thought. How do I let people know that?
“Well?” Travis said. “You got an answer for me, kid?”
Slade didn’t have answers for either of them, but he figured that wasn’t what his brother wanted to hear.
“Well,” he said slowly, “why should they have to know it?”
“Because she doesn’t want to be some kind of secret, as if she doesn’t have
a real place in my life.” Travis sighed. “I just need to call her something.”
“No, she’d never go for that.”
“How about calling her your friend?”
Travis laughed, and Slade closed his eyes. You could always do what I did, he almost said, you could marry her and call her your wife…
“She’s your mistress,” he said brusquely. “Leave it at that.”