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Look at me, Raoul Zesiger willed Sirena Abbott.
He had to lean back in his chair to see her past the three men between them. He should have been looking at the judge, but he couldn't take his eyes off Sirena.
She sat very still, face forward, her profile somber. Her absurdly long gypsy lashes had stayed downswept as his lawyer had risen to speak. She didn't even flick a glance in his direction when her own lawyer stood to plead that jail time was counterproductive, since she needed to work to pay back the stolen funds.
Raoul's lawyers had warned him this wouldn't result in incarceration, but Raoul had pressed hard for it. He would see this treacherously innocent-looking woman, with her mouth pouted in grave tension and her thick brunette locks pulled into a deceptively respectful knot, go to jail for betraying him. For stealing.
His stepfather had been a thief. He had never expected to be taken advantage of again, especially by his reliable PA, a woman he'd come to trust to be there, always. But she had dipped her fingers into his personal account.
Then she had tried to manipulate him into going easy by being easy.
He didn't want the flash of memory to strike. His ears were waiting for the judge to state that this would progress to a sentence, but his body prickled with heat as he recalled the feel of those plump lips softening under his. Her breasts, a lush handful, had smelled of summer. Her nipples were sun-warmed berries against his tongue, succulent and sweet. The heart-shaped backside he'd watched too often as it retreated from his office had been both taut and smooth as he had lifted her skirt and peeled lace down. Thighs like powdered sugar, an enticing musky perfume between that pulled him to hard attention as he remembered how tight-almost virginal-she'd been. But so hot and welcoming.
Because she'd known her criminal act was about to come to light.
His gut clenched in a mixture of fury and unparalleled carnal hunger. For two years he'd managed to keep his desire contained, but now that he'd had her, all he could think about was having her again. He hated her for having such power over him. He could swear under oath that he'd never hurt a woman, but he wanted to crush Sirena Abbott. Eradicate her. Destroy her.
The clap of a gavel snapped him back to the courtroom. It was empty save for the five of them behind two tables, both facing the judge. His lawyer gave Raoul a resigned tilt of his head and Raoul realized with sick disgust that the decision had gone in Sirena's favor.
At the other table, partly obscured by her lawyer, Sirena's spine softened in relief. Her wide eyes lifted to the heavens, shining with gratitude. Her lawyer thanked the judge and set a hand under Sirena's elbow to help her rise, leaning in to say something to her.
Raoul felt a clench of possessiveness as he watched the solicitous middle-aged lawyer hover over her. He told himself it was anger, nothing else. He loathed being a victim again. She shouldn't get away with a repayment plan of six hundred pounds a month. That wasn't reparation. That was a joke.
Why wouldn't she look at him? It was the least she could do: look him in the eye and acknowledge they both knew she was getting away with a crime. But she murmured something to her lawyer and left the man packing his briefcase as she circled to the aisle. Her sexy curves were downplayed by her sleek jacket and pencil skirt, but she was still alluring as hell. Her step slowed as she came to the gate into the gallery.
Look at me, Raoul silently commanded again, holding his breath as she hesitated, sensing she was about to swing her gaze to his.
Her lips drained of color and her hand trembled as she reached out, trying to find the gate. She stared straight ahead, eyes blinking and blinking-
"She's fainting!" He shoved past his two lawyers and toppled chairs to reach her even as her own lawyer turned and reacted. They caught her together.
Raoul hated the man anew for touching her as they both eased her to the floor. She was dead weight. He had to catch her head as it lolled. She hadn't been this insubstantial the last time he'd held her. She hadn't been fragile.
Raoul barked for first aid.
Someone appeared with oxygen in blessedly short time. He let himself be pushed back a half step, but he couldn't take his eyes off the way Sirena's cheeks had gone hollow, her skin gray. Everything in him, breath, blood, thought, ground to a halt as he waited for a new verdict: that she would be okay.
It was his father all over again. The lack of response, the wild panic rising in him as he fought against helplessness and brutal reality. Was she breathing? She couldn't be dead. Open your eyes, Sirena.
Distantly he heard the attendant asking after preexisting conditions and Raoul racked his brain. She wasn't diabetic, had never taken medication that he'd seen. He reached for the phone he'd turned off while court was in session, intent on accessing her personnel file, when he heard her lawyer answer in a low murmur. "She's pregnant."
The words burst like shattered glass in his ears.
Sirena became aware of something pressed to her face. Clammy sweat coated her skin and a swirl of her ever-present nausea turned mercilessly inside her.
She lifted a heavy hand to dislodge whatever was smothering her and a voice said, "You fainted, Sirena. Take it easy for a minute."
Opening her eyes, she saw John, the highly recommended lawyer who'd been perfunctory until she'd almost vomited in his wastebasket. She'd told him the father's identity was irrelevant, but Raoul was glaring from beyond John's shoulder with all the relevance of an unforgiving sun on a lost soul in the desert-and he appeared about as sympathetic.
She had tried hard not to look at Raoul, former boss, brief lover, unsuspecting father. He was too everything. Tall, dark, unabashedly urbane and sophisticated. Severe. Judgmental.
But of their own accord, her hungry eyes took in his appearance-her first opportunity to do so in weeks. She cataloged his razor-sharp charcoal suit, the solid black tie. His jaw was freshly shaved for his morning appointment, his dark hair recently cut into the sternly simple style of a successful businessman.
And there were his eyes, the gray irises stormy and full of condemnation as they snared hers in an unbreakable stare.
John asked, "Is there any pain? We've called an ambulance."
Sirena flashed a terrified glance back at Raoul. It was a mistake. She realized immediately that he'd read it for what it was: an admission of guilt. A betrayal of truth.
Clenching her perfidious eyes closed, she willed him not to pick up on what had been revealed, but he was the most acutely intelligent person she'd ever met. He missed nothing.
If he knew she was carrying his baby, there'd be another fight. Considering what this current contest had taken out of her, she wasn't ready for another. She wouldn't, couldn't, let him think he had a right to custody of her child.
"Sirena," Raoul said in that dark chocolate voice of his.
Her skin rippled in a pleasurable shiver of recognition. Two years of hearing every intonation in that voice left her with the knowledge that her name on his lips right now was an implacable warning.
"Look at me," he commanded.
Sirena reached blindly for John's hand, clenching her icy fingers on his warm, dry ones. Beneath the oxygen mask, her voice was hollow and whisper thin.
"Tell him to leave me alone or I'll take out a restraining order."
* * *
The first volley of the second war was waiting when she got home from the hospital. More tests had been scheduled, but for the moment her doctor was putting her faint down to stress and low blood sugar resulting from her unrelenting nausea.
Sirena thought nothing could be more stressful than facing prison while dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, but Raoul knew no bounds when it came to psychological torture. She read the email John had forwarded:
My client has every reason to believe your client carries his baby. He insists on full involvement in the care through pregnancy and will take sole custody at birth.
Her blood congealed, even though this was no surprise. Raoul was possessive. She'd learned that. This reaction was fully expected, but having anyone try to take this baby from her was unthinkable.
Blinking the sting of desperation from her eyes, she typed, It's not his, saying aloud, "And tell him to go to hell."
She didn't let herself dwell on the fact that Raoul wanted his baby. It would make her weaken toward a man she needed to believe was a monster-even though she'd spent two years falling into deep infatuation with not just a dynamic tycoon, but a man who was a caring son and protective older stepbrother. In some ways he was her mirror image, she'd often thought fancifully. They'd both lost a parent and both wanted the best for their younger siblings. She had come to believe him to be an admirable person with a dry wit and standards that put her learned habits of perfectionism to shame.
No, she reminded herself as she prepared a slice of toast she would force herself to eat. He was a cruel, angry, small person who felt nothing. For her, at least. He'd proven it when he'd made passionate love to her one day, then had her arrested the next.
A black hole of despair threatened to open beneath her feet, but she was safe now. That part was over. She'd made a horrible mistake and the judge had accepted her remorse, even if Raoul hadn't. She had no idea how she would come up with six hundred pounds a month, but that was a minor worry against convincing Raoul the baby wasn't his.
There was no way she could live with having another loved one wrenched from her life. The fear of her baby growing up without its mother, the way she had, had given her the strength to fight tooth and nail against Raoul's determination to put her in jail. Somehow she would rally the strength to oust him from her life for good.
Which left her feeling incredibly bereft, but she ignored it.
Taking tea, toast and a tablet for nausea to the sofa, she scanned her laptop to see if any transcription jobs had come in. The legal bills were appalling and being fired three months ago had decimated her very modest savings.
If only she could take back that one awful moment when she had thought, Raoul will understand. She rubbed her brow where it crinkled in lament. Borrowing from him had seemed the most simple and obvious thing to do when her sister had been in tears, saying, I guess I'm not meant to be a teacher. Their father was expecting payment from a big customer any day. Ali had struggled so hard to get her marks up and be accepted into the specialized program. The tuition was due, but the cash was not in hand.
I can cover it, Sirena had assured her, confident the balance would move out and come back into Raoul's account on the same statement. He probably wouldn't even notice, let alone care. He paid her to worry about little details like that.
Then her father's customer had gone insolvent.
Not overnight, of course. It started with a delay of a few more days. A week. Sirena had begun chasing it herself, right up to the monthly cutoff date, not wanting to mention her self-approved loan to her boss until she had the funds to repay it.
The money hadn't appeared and the opportunity to explain hadn't arisen, not before other events.
And since she didn't want to involve her father when his livelihood was nose-diving, she had shouldered the fallout herself, keeping her motives from Raoul and not revealing to her family what she'd done or that she was facing jail time for it.
This had been the most crushingly lonely and frightening time of her life.
A muted beep announced an incoming email. From Raoul. Her heart leaped in misplaced anticipation. It was one word.
He wasn't buying that the baby wasn't his.
Gritting her teeth against an ache that crushed her chest, she added Raoul to her email block list and sent a missive to John.
Tell him that contacting me directly is out of line. If the baby was his, I would sue for support. I would have asked for leniency when he was trying to put me in jail. This baby is not his and he must LEAVE ME ALONE.
Hitting send was like poking herself in the throat. She drew a pained breath, fighting the sense of loss. But life hit you with sudden changes and you had to roll with them. She had learned that when her mother had died, and again when her stepmother had whisked her father and half sister to Australia with brutal speed as soon as Sirena graduated and enrolled in business school.
People left, was what she'd learned. They disappeared from your life whether you wanted them to or not. Sometimes they even fired you and tried to lock you away in prison so they'd never have to see you again.
Making a disgusted noise at herself for indulging in what amounted to emotional self-harm, she turned her thoughts to the little being who wouldn't leave her. With a gentle hand on her unsettled abdomen, she focused on the one person she'd do everything in her power to keep in her life forever. She didn't intend to smother the poor thing, just be his or her mother. She couldn't countenance anyone taking that role from her. And Raoul would try. He was that angry and ruthless.
She shivered as she recalled seeing that side of him for the first time, after making bail. The only thing that had gotten her through the humiliating process of being arrested, fingerprinted and charged was the certainty that Raoul didn't know what was happening to her. Some accountant had done this. A bank official. They didn't understand that Raoul might be gruff on the outside, but she was his best PA ever. His right hand. They'd become intimate. He would be furious that she was being treated this way.
She had believed with all her heart that as soon as she told him what had happened, he'd make it right.
He hadn't. He'd made her wait in the rain at the gate of his mansion outside London, eventually striding out with hard-hearted purpose, his severe expression chilly with distaste as he surveyed her.
"I've been trying to reach you," Sirena had said through the rungs of the security gate, frightened by how unreachable he seemed. "I was arrested today."
"I know," Raoul replied without a shred of concern. "I filed the complaint."
Her shock and stunned anguish must have been obvious, but his mouth had barely twitched in reaction. Cruel dislike had been the only emotion in his scathing expression. Sirena's stepmother had been small and critical, but she hadn't outright hated Sirena. In that second, she realized Raoul reviled her, and that was more painful than anything.
Guilt and remorse had made her want to shrivel up and die, but she couldn't-wouldn't-believe she'd ruined her career and her budding relationship with the man of her dreams over one tiny misstep.
"But " Everything she wanted to say backed up in her throat. They'd developed friendship, reliance and respect over two years of working together and just yesterday they'd taken that relationship to a new level. He'd been tender and teasing and
God, she had believed he'd been loving.