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"Oh, please don't rebel on me now." Alison Whitman put her hand over her stomach and tried to quell the rising nausea that was threatening her with immediate action if she didn't get a hold of some saltine crackers or a bottle of ginger ale. Morning sickness was the pits, and it was even worse when it lasted all day. Worse still when you were about to tell a man he was going to be a father.
Alison put her car in Park and took a deep breath, almost relieved to discover a roadblock in her path. The wrought-iron gates that partitioned the massive mansion from the rest of the world looked impenetrable. She didn't know a lot about this man, the father of her baby; nothing really other than his name. But it was clear that he was way out of her league, both financially and otherwise.
Her eyes widened when she saw a man in a dark suit with security-issue sunglasses prowling the perimeter of the fence. Was Max Rossi mafia or something? Who had security detail in the middle of nowhere in Washington State?
The guard, because that's what he had to be, exited through a smaller pedestrian gate and walked toward her car, his expression grim. He gestured for her to roll her window down and she complied, self-conscious of the crank handle that she had to use to perform the action. Her car wasn't exactly a new, fully loaded model.
"Are you lost, ma'am?" He sounded perfectly pleasant and polite, but she knew that his right hand, which looked as though it was resting on his hip and was partly concealed by his dark suit jacket, was likely gripping a gun.
"No. I'm looking for Mr. Rossi. This is the address I was given."
The man's lips turned up slightly. "Sorry. Mr. Rossi isn't receiving visitors."
"I'm " She swallowed. "I'm Alison Whitman. He's expecting me. At least I think he is."
The guard held up a hand, pulled a cell phone from his pocket and hit Speed Dial. He spoke rapidly in a foreign language, Italian, she guessed, before hanging up and turning his attention back to her.
"Go ahead and pull in. Park your car at the front." He walked to the gate and keyed in a code. The iron monstrosities swung forward and Alison pulled the car through, her stomach now seriously protesting.
She really didn't know Max Rossi; she had no assurance he wouldn't harm her in some way. Maybe she hadn't thought this through.
No, that wasn't true. She had thought this through. From every angle until she was certain she had no choice but to come here and see the father of her baby, despite the fact that she wanted to bury her head in a hole and pretend the whole thing had never happened. She couldn't play ostrich on this one, no matter how much she might like to.
The house was massive, its bulk partially concealed by towering fir trees. The intensity of the saturated greens surrounding her was almost surreal, compliments of the year-round rainfall. Nothing new to a native of the Pacific Northwest, but she rarely ventured outside the Seattle city limits anymore, so being surrounded by this much nature felt like a new experience. And seeing such a pristine, modern mansion set in the middle of the rugged wilderness was akin to an out-of-body experience.
Of course, the past two weeks had also seemed like an out-of-body experience; first with the positive pregnancy test, and then with all of the revelations that had followed.
She parked her ancient car in front of the house and got out slowly, really hoping she didn't lose her lunch in the middle of the paved driveway. Not exactly a way to make a good impression on a man.
The security detail appeared out of nowhere, his hand clamping firmly on her arm as he led her to the front door.
"I appreciate the chivalrous gesture, but I can make it through the door on my own," she said drily.
Her escort gave her a rueful smile, but loosened his grip and let his hand fall to his side. Although she noticed he was still ready to grab hold of her if he needed to.
He opened the front door for her and she had a feeling it wasn't good manners that made him allow her to go in first, but a desire to keep himself in the most advantageous position.
"Ms. Whitman." The deep, velvet voice held just a hint of an accent and the sound made her already queasy stomach turn, but not with nausea. This feeling was something she didn't recognize at all; a strange twisting sensation that wasn't entirely unpleasant. She put a hand to her stomach and tried to suppress it.
The sight of the owner of the amazing voice only increased the pitching sensation. She watched as he strode down the sweeping, curved staircase, his movements quick and smooth, masculine yet graceful.
He was the most handsome man she'd ever seennot that she ever spent much time dwelling on men and their looks. This man, though, demanded admiration, even from her. He was just so masculine, so striking. He would turn both male and female heads wherever he went, that was for sure. And not just because of his arresting features and perfect physique. It was his air of authority, the absolute power that emanated from him. It was compelling in a way that captivated her.
His square jaw was set and uncompromising. Hard eyes, dark and fathomless, framed by a fringe of thick eyelashes, stared down at her. If not for the expression in his eyes, she might have called them beautiful, but the intense glare that he fixed on her put paid to that description.
He looked familiar, although she couldn't imagine where she would have ever seen someone like him. Such an example of masculine perfection hardly haunted the halls of the pro bono law firm where she worked.
She swallowed thickly and took a deep breath, hoping the infusion of fresh air would banish some of the nausea she felt. "Yes."
"You're from the clinic?" he asked, coming to a stop in front of her. His posture would make a marine envious. She had to crane her neck to look at him, his height topping her own five foot four inches by at least a foot.
"Yes no. Not exactly. I don't know how much Melissa explained when she called you." Melissa was one of her dearest friends in the world, and when she'd heard about the mistake made at the clinic she'd not only contacted Alison right away with Max's informationagainst the wishes of her bossbut she'd offered to be the one to contact Max, as well.
"Not a lot, only that it was an urgent matter. Which it had better be."
Not for the first time she contemplated just turning around and leaving, leaving the whole situation behind her. But that was the coward's way out. She didn't believe in leaving loose ends, and, unlike some other people, she didn't walk away from her responsibilities. Not ever.
"Is there somewhere we can go and speak privately?" she asked, looking around the cavernous entryway. No doubt the house had a lot of private rooms where they could sit and talk. Of course, the idea of being in an enclosed space with a man she'd never met didn't rank as a favorite for her. She was trained in self-defense and she had pepper spray on her key chain, but that didn't mean she wanted to get in a situation where she would have to use either one. Especially since she had a feeling neither one would prove effective against Max Rossi.
"I don't have a lot of time, Ms. Whitman."
Anger flared through her. He didn't have a lot of time? As if she had any spare moments just lying around. It was difficult for her to take any time off of work. Every case they handled was vitally important to the people involved. They were advocating for those who couldn't advocate for themselves, and by taking the afternoon off to drive up here and talk to him she was leaving her clients in the lurch.
"I can assure you that my time is valuable, too, Mr. Rossi," she said stiffly. "But I need to speak with you."
"Then speak," he said.
"I'm pregnant," she said, wishing, even as she said the words, that she could call them back.
A muscle in his jaw ticked. "Am I meant to offer congratulations?"
"You're the father."
His dark eyes hardened. "You and I both know that isn't possible. You may not keep a record of your lovers, Ms. Whitman, but I can assure you I'm not so promiscuous that I forget mine."
Her face heated. "There are other ways to conceive a child than sexual intercourse, as you well know. When Melissa from ZoiLabs called she implied that I worked there but I'm a I'm a client of theirs."
He froze, his expression hardening like granite, his jaw tightening. "Let's go into my office."
She followed him through the large living area of the house and through a heavy oak door. His home office was massive, with high ceilings that were accented by rich, natural wood beams. One of the walls was made entirely of glass and overlooked the valley below. There was nothing as far as she could see but pristine nature. Beautiful. But the view was cold comfort in the situation.
"There was a mistake at the clinic," she said, keeping her eyes trained on the mountains in the distance. "They weren't going to tell me, but one of my friends works there and she felt I.that I had a right to know. I was given your donation by mistake and there was no log of your.of your genetic testing."
"How is this possible?" he asked, pacing the room with long strides.
"I wasn't offered a specific explanation. The nearest thing to an answer I got is that your sample was mixed up with the donor I had selected because your last names were similar. My intended donor was a Mr. Ross."
Max gave her a hard look. "He was not your husband or boyfriend?"
"I don't have a husband or a boyfriend. It was all meant to be done anonymously. But " She took a shaky breath. "It isn't that simple now."
His lip curled. "Not so simple now that you've found out the 'donor' for your child is a wealthy man? Are you here to collect some kind of prenatal child support?"
Alison bristled. "That isn't it at all! I'm sorry to have bothered you, I really am. I'm sure you didn't expect the recipient of your donation to show up on your doorstep. But I need to know if you underwent genetic testing prior to using the clinic."
"I didn't leave a donation," he said, his voice rough.
"You must have! She gave me your name. She said it was your sperm that was given to me by mistake."
A muscle in his jaw tightened and she noticed him slowly squeezing his hands into fists and releasing them, as if in attempt to gain control over his temper. "I had a sperm sample at the clinic, but it was not meant for anonymous donation. It was for my wife. We were having trouble conceiving."
"Oh." Alison felt all of the blood drain from her face, leaving her light-headed and dizzy. Now she really wanted to turn and run away. She'd read horror stories in the paper about couples involved in mix-ups, and people losing their babies. She clamped a possessive hand over her stomach. The baby was still hers, even if this man was the biological father. She was still the mother. No judge would take a baby from a competent, loving mother. And Max's wife wouldn't want a baby that didn't belong to her anyway. She couldn't.
"I just I just need to know " She took a breath. "I'm a nonaffected carrier of Cystic Fibrosis. The donors are all screened for genetic disorders before they're accepted. But your results weren't in the file. Melissa knew that I was concerned and she was going to get me the information about you, only it wasn't there."
"That's because I wasn't a donor" he said harshly.
"But have you been tested?" she asked, desperation clawing at her. She had to know. Watching her sister succumb to the disease in childhood had been the hardest thing Alison had ever endured. It had been the end of everything. Her family, her happiness. She had to know so that she could prepare herself for the worst. She wouldn't terminate her pregnancy. No matter what, she wouldn't do that. The memory of her sister, of that wonderful, short life, was far too dear to her to consider that. But she did need to know.
"I have not had that test done."
She sank into the plush chair that was positioned in front of the desk, her knees unable to support her anymore. "You need to get it done," she said. "Please. I need you to do it."
Maximo examined the woman sitting in front of him, his heart pounding heavily in his chest. He hadn't given a thought to the clinic in the past two years, not since Selena's death. When he'd received the phone call from the employee at ZoiLabs he had assumed it pertained to his sperm sample. They had called shortly after the accident to ask him if they could discard it, but he'd ignored the voice mail message. At the time he simply hadn't been able to deal with it. He hadn't imagined that these might be the consequences.
Now he was going to be a father. It was the most amazing and terrifying moment he'd ever experienced. His gaze dropped to Alison's flat stomach. She was so slender it was almost impossible to believe that she could be carrying his baby. His baby. A son or daughter.
He could easily see a vision of a dark-haired child, cradled in Alison Whitman's arms as she looked down at the infant with a small, maternal smile on her face. The image filled him with longing so intense that his chest ached with it. He thought that he'd let that desire go, the desire for children. He thought he'd laid that dream to rest, alongside his wife.
But in one surreal moment all of those dreams had been made possible again. And in that very same moment he'd found out that his child might have serious health complications. His tightly controlled life was suddenly, definitely, out of his control. Everything that had seemed important five minutes ago was insignificant now, and everything that mattered to him rested in the womb of this stranger.
But he could get the test. Find out as soon as possible if there was a chance their baby might have the disease. Having something to do, something to hold on to, real action that he could take, helped anchor the whole situation to reality, allowed him to have some control back. It made it easier to believe that there really was a baby.