All flights were grounded until further notice. The airline would try to make arrangements for overnight accommodations for passengers who wanted them.
Lara cleared her throat. “Well,” she said, and gave a forced laugh, “well, that’s that.”
Slade nodded, and she was sure he understood what she meant. “Yes.” He smiled politely. “Are you going to wait it out here?”
“Uh-huh. How about you?”
“Yes,” he said, and then, so quickly that she wasn’t sure it had happened, his eyes went from smoky-gray to deepest charcoal. “The hell with this,” he said. “Come with me.”
Lara didn’t pretend not to understand. “No,” she whispered, “I can’t.”
“Are you married?” She shook her head. “Engaged?” She shook her head again. Slade moved closer, until she could feel the warmth of his breath on her face. “Neither am I. We won’t be hurting anyone.” He reached out and took her hand. She let him do it, though she knew it was a mistake. “Come to bed with me, Lara.”
There it was, out in the open. What he’d been thinking, what she’d been thinking. And here was her chance. But she wouldn’t take it. Sleep with a strange man, deliberately try to get herself pregnant without his knowledge…
“No.” She shook her head and said the words again. “I can’t.”
“We’ll be incredible together,” he said in a husky whisper.
“I couldn’t,” she stammered. “I—I don’t even know you.”
“Yes, you do. You’ve known me forever, the same as I’ve known you.” His voice was rough and low. “As for the details…I’m an architect. I live in Boston. I’m straight, I’m not married, not committed to anyone. I’m twenty-eight years old, I just had my annual physical and my doctor says I’m healthy enough to outlive Methuselah. And I’ve never wanted a woman the way I want you.”
Lara looked at him. She felt as if she’d stepped into another dimension, a dimension in which anything was possible and everything was acceptable. Who would she hurt, if she went with him? He wanted her. She wanted a child.
No. No, it was worse than crazy, it was immoral. Wasn’t it?
She swallowed dryly, then licked her lips.
“It’s—it’s crazy. Even talking like this”
He put his finger lightly across her mouth. She shuddered at the feel of it on her skin. A lazy lick of flame began curling through her blood. Oh, it would be so easy…
“I’ll get a taxi,” he murmured. “There’s a hotel not far from here. They know me. They’ll find us a room.”
“A taxi. And a hotel, in weather like this?” She made a sound that she hoped was a laugh. “You’re very sure of yourself, Slade.”
“If I were sure of myself,” he said softly, “I wouldn’t be holding my breath while I wait for your answer.”
She looked up at him, and thought of what it would be like to go with him. To have him touch her. Not just because she wanted a child but—be honest, Lara—but because he was the most exciting man she’d ever met, because she was dizzy with wanting to be in his arms…
She took a deep, deep breath. And she said, “Yes.”
He took her to the hotel. His arm lay heavy around her waist, anchoring her to him as if he thought she’d change her mind and run away. He started to stop at the shop in the lobby and she knew it was so he could buy condoms.
She took an even deeper breath and told him it wasn’t necessary.
He didn’t question her, but the press of his hand at her waist grew more possessive as he led her to their room.
She didn’t panic until he shut the door and locked it. When he turned toward her, she looked at him and saw a stranger.
What am I doing? she thought frantically. Her heart thumped with fear.
“No!” she said, “no, I can’t do this.”
Perhaps if he’d tried to talk her into it, or if he’d pulled her into his arms, things would have ended differently. But he did neither of those things. He took her face in his hands, his touch sure and gentle. And he kissed her so tenderly that it made her feel breathless.
His mouth was wonderful, soft and warm on hers. She felt the fear slipping from her body, felt something hot and exciting take its place. She wrapped her hands around his wrists and, slowly, the kiss changed, grew hungry and demanding, and she moaned and looped her arms around his neck.
Now, she thought, now, before I lose courage…
“Please,” she whispered, “oh, Slade, please.”
And he carried her to the bed, undressed her, let down her hair and fulfilled every middle-of-the night dream she’d ever had, and some she’d never dared imagine.
The storm became a blizzard. Lara didn’t care. She never left Slade’s arms, never wanted to. She forgot the reason she’d come with him and remembered only that he was the lover she’d always longed for.
He was everything, the perfect fantasy, and yet he was real.
She fell asleep at last, exhausted, her head on his chest, and awakened to his kisses at dawn. She looked up at him and knew she’d been a fool to think she wanted him only so he could give her a baby. She still wanted that but now she wanted more.
She wanted Slade, in her arms and in her life. And, if the past hours meant anything, she thought he might want that, too. In fact, there was a darkness in his eyes that she suspected came of the realization that the long, wonderful night was going to end.
She smiled, to let him know she didn’t want it to happen, either. “Slade? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I mean, the storm’s over.” He smiled, and her heart plummeted because suddenly she knew she’d misunderstood what she’d seen in his eyes. It wasn’t fear that the night would end, it was panic that she might want more than he wanted to give. “Lara, this was wonderful. Maybe—maybe we can manage to get together again sometime.”
She felt the sting of tears in her eyes and hated herself for it. She reminded herself that he’d made her no promises, that she’d wanted no promises, and she smiled and assured him that would be great. She had the awful feeling he was going to apologize for having hurt her feelings and she stopped him by reaching for him, touching him, and making him forget everything but the need to possess her again.
When it was done, he made an attempt at sincerity.
“I don’t know your address,” he said. “Or your phone number.”
“I’ll give them to you in the morning,” Lara had answered, but she’d known she was lying. She’d waited until he fell asleep. Then she’d dressed and let herself quietly from the room.
She hadn’t gone with him for passion, she’d gone for what he could give her. For a child. That was all she’d wanted from him…
asn’t it? she thought, as she stared out at the Baltimore harbor.
Lara swung away from the window. Her intercom was buzzing. She cleared her throat and reached for it.
“Ms. Stevens? Mr. Baron’s arrived. He’s in the conference room, with the directors. Mr. Dobbs says would you please join them now?”
“Thank you, Nancy.”
She sounded calm. That was good. She looked it, too, she thought as she took out her compact and peered into it. But her hand trembled a little as she smoothed back her hair.
“Don’t be an idiot, Lara,” she told her reflection. She was prepared. She knew what she had to do and how to do it. She’d get Slade Baron out of Baltimore so quickly it would make his head spin. As for facing him—that wasn’t a problem. What she’d felt for him, what she’d thought she felt, had never been real.
Lara smoothed down her skirt, plucked the folder from her desk and left her office.
LARA swiped the palms of her hands against her skirt as she rode the elevator to the conference room level.
Stop it, she told herself angrily. The advantage was hers. Slade wouldn’t be expecting to see her. He hadn’t known her last name, any more than she’d known his. He was going to be the one who would have to work at showing no reaction to the discovery that Beaufort’s chief auditor was the woman he’d slept with on a snowy night in Denver.
She had to calm down, otherwise she’d not only lose that advantage, she’d never be able to carry this off. Slade would see her panic and he, smug male animal that he was, would take it as a sign that she was overcome with excitement at seeing him again.
Overcome, yes. But not with excitement. With fear. And there was nothing to fear. Nothing.
The elevator door slid open. Lara took a breath, squared her shoulders and strode down the hall.
“They’re waiting for you,” Dobbs’s secretary chirped.
Lara took her chances and tried a smile. “Thanks.”
It worked. The secretary didn’t leap to her feet and run, screaming, to the elevator, which, Lara supposed, meant she really was smiling and not just pulling her lips back from her teeth like a rabid dog baring its fangs. But that was certainly how it felt.