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"What do you mean, she's mine?"
Derek Messina stared blankly at his brother, Dex. In his arms, Dex held a sleeping infant, which Derek pointedly did not look at.
The child could not be his.
True, sixteen days ago, she'd been left on his doorstep in the middle of the night with an ambiguous note pinned to her chest. Since his brother lived with him, it had been only logical to assume she was Dex's mess to sort out. Which was whyafter they'd both taken a paternity test the next morningDerek had left on a business trip to New York and Antwerp feeling confident the baby wasn't his.
"She can't be mine," he repeated firmly. But the conviction in his voice couldn't block out the doubt and confusion that had begun to settle in his belly.
Dex merely looked at him with a wry smile. "She's yours."
Was that a hint of regret in Dex's voice?
"If this is your idea of a joke, it isn't funny."
"You think I would joke about this?" Dex shot him a look of annoyed disbelief. "No. Don't answer that. The results of the paternity test we both took are sitting over there on the counter."
With a growing sense of dread, Derek crossed to the kitchen counter where a short stack of papers sat. However, he couldn't quite force himself to pick them up. To face the possibility that his brother wasn't lying to him
Because if he was honest with himself, he knew Dex wasn't. When they were just kids, Dex had pulled his share of pranks, but those days were long past.
No, if Dex said this baby was Derek's, then she was his.
The timing couldn't be worse. Not that there was a good time to find out you'd fathered a five-month-old.
Finally Derek picked up the papers and read them. Documentation that he was a genetic match for little Isabella Alwin. Just as Dex had claimed.
He looked up, gestured with the papers. "When did you find out?"
"Five days ago."
"And you didn't call me?"
Dex's gaze sharpened with something like distaste. "I didn't see any reason to. You wouldn't have cut your business trip short anyway."
True. But he definitely would have done things differently.
"I don't have to tell you how important this trip was," he said to Dex.
"Right, Messina Diamonds finally opened its diamond-cutting house in Antwerp. We're no longer just a family of uncouth miners. Now we're playing with the big boys." Bitterness laced Dex's words. "Of course that's much more important than your child."
The cynicism in Dex's voice snagged his attention, even through the fog of his shock. He studied his brother from across the room, noting the protective way Dex cradled the sleeping infant in his arms, the hand that cupped the back of her head, the way he shifted slowly from one foot to the other. If Derek didn't know better, he'd say Dex had been lulling babies to sleep all his life.
The peaceful tableaux roused his own cynicism. Dex was even less of a family man than he was. Two weeks of caring for a mewling infant couldn't have changed that. He'd bet good money on it. Except he wasn't a betting man.
Finally, Derek forced himself to look at the child. Downy copper-colored curls covered her head. Her cheek rested against Dex's chest. Impossibly long lashes lay against gently flushed cheeks. Her tiny rosebud of a mouth was parted. He might have thought she was a doll if it hadn't been for the moist half-moon of drool on Dex's shirt.
Turning his back on them both, he headed for the liquor cabinet in the living room. He poured two brandies and handed one to Dex, who had followed him. Somehow he looked almost natural holding a baby in one hand and a brandy in the other.
Resisting the urge to toss back his own drink, Derek took a careful sip before setting it aside. Shoving his hands deep into his pockets, he appraised her shrewdly. "She doesn't look like me."
Dex's gaze narrowed, as if annoyed. "She'd be a damn ugly baby girl if she did." After a moment of watching the child, he said, "She has Dad's eyes. Your eyes, too, I suppose."
His father's eyes? Well, wasn't that just a kick in the gut?
Though he supposed that was hardly her fault. Not that any of this was her fault. No, it was just bad timing and bad luck. And perhaps overconfidence on his part. He'd known there was a possibility she was his when he'd left on his trip for Antwerp, but he hadn't really believed it. That had been his mistake and his alone.
With a sigh of resignation, he said, "Then I suppose I should open a bottle of champagne or something. Welcome the other newest member of the Messina family."
Dex quirked an eyebrow. "The other newest member?"
"Yes," he said grimly. "I stopped by New York on my way to Antwerp and convinced Kitty to come on the trip with me."
The censure in Dex's voice didn't surprise Derek. Dex had never liked Kitty, not that Derek had let that get in his way during the three years of calculated courtship it had taken to win her over.
"You aren't going to congratulate me?"
Dex raised the brandy snifter in a toast. "Congratulations. You got to spend two weeks with one of the most heartless women in the country."
He ignored Dex's dig. "Actually we had a very nice time."
"I hope you didn't plan to impress her with our office in Antwerp. She's probably been touring diamond cutting houses since she was a little girl."
"I should hope so." Kitty was an heir to the Bieder-mann Jewelry fortune. Her family owned the largest chain of jewelry stores in the country. "That's one of the reasons I've asked her to be my wife."
Dex choked on his brandy. "What. Don't tell me she said yes."
"Of course she did." Derek took no satisfaction in his brother's shocked expression. "I wouldn't have asked if I hadn't known she'd agree. Besides, she's a smart enough woman to see the business advantages to merging our families."
Dex looked down at the child sleeping in his arms. "What will she say when she finds out about Isabella?"
"I have no idea." Of course, that wasn't entirely true.
Kitty was beautiful and intelligent, with the business sense of a shark, all of which made her the perfect woman for him. She was not, however, the kind of woman to raise someone else's bastard child.
"This time, I'm definitely quitting." Raina Huffman gave herself a firm look in the mirror. She pressed her hands on the cool marble of the twentieth-floor executive women's bathroom. Despite the glare she gave herself, she wasn't quite convinced.
But it was time. Past time.
From behind her, a voice said, "You're not going to quit."
Raina spun around to see her friend Trinity standing with her hands on her hips and an amused expression on her pixielike face.
Raina narrowed her gaze. "I am going to quit."
"No, you're not. You never quit. You're always saying you're going to quit, but you never do."
As Trinity disappeared into one of the stalls, Raina frowned. "This time I mean it." She turned, propped her hip against the counter and began counting off items on her fingers. "I'm tired of being his errand girl. Of doing everything he wants the minute he wants it."
"You're his assistant, it's your job," Trinity countered smoothly.
"When he calls me at one in the morning on a Sunday and wants me to run a personal errand for him, that's not my job. It's a pain in the butt, that's what it is."
The toilet flushed and a second later Trinity emerged from the stall to wash her hands. "He may be a pain in the butt." She met Raina's gaze in the mirror. "He may even be the most demanding bastard of a boss in all of Dallas. Hell, he may make Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada look like a fairy godmother. But you'll never quit because he pays you oodles and oodles of money. Which you need."
Raina had to stifle the urge to defend him. Plenty of peopleTrinity includedjoked about him being an evil dictator, however Raina knew better. Yes, he was a ruthless businessman and a demanding boss, but as his assistant and near constant companion, she saw sides of him that no one else did. However in addition to being generous and loyal, he was also intensely private and wouldn't appreciate her defending him to anyone.
So instead of thinking about his qualities that she would miss, she focused on something Trinity would understand.
"The oodles of money are nice." Raina sighed as she thought of all the money she'd made over the past nine years. Money she'd faithfully shuffled over to her mother's bank account to help raise her siblings. "But Kendrick is graduating in May. And Cassidy's scholarship came through again, so she's set for another two years. They're officially on their own."
"Which still leaves your mom to take care of."
"True, but the house is paid for." Thanks to those oodles and oodles of money. "And disability covers her living expenses." Raina smiled brightly. "So now I don't need the money anymore. I can walk away from this awful job and get a normal job. With normal hours. With a normal boss."
Trinity waggled her eyebrows. "With a boss who doesn't drive you crazy."
Right. Crazy. Or something.
She supposed "crazy" was as good a word as any. Derek frustrated her, angered her, made her want to tear out her hair. And occasionally tear off her clothes.
Truth was, she'd been his assistant for nine years, eight of which she'd been slowly falling in love with him. It was a long time to pine for someone who saw her as "an indispensable cog" in his company, but not as a woman.
Her pitiful emotional state was something she didn't want to think about, let alone share with coworkers. She was afraid if she lingered much longer, she might give herself away. So she plunked her purse down on the counter and whipped out her tinted lip-gloss.
Beside her, Trinity just shook her head and chuckled. "You're not going to quit."
Holding the tube of lip-gloss in one hand, Raina said, "What?"
"You're putting on lip balm." Then she looked Raina up and down critically. "No, when you quit a creativity-smothering, life-sucking job like this after nine years, you don't wear practical shoes and lip balm. It calls for four-inch heels and bright red lipstick. It calls for a little ass-kicking."
Raina smiled wryly at her friend. "No, when you quit a job it may call for a little ass-kicking. As for me, I've never once walked into this building without looking like a professional. Today's no different. And again, I am definitely quitting."
"If you were quitting, you'd be willing to admit Derek's a heartless tyrant."
Raina forced a chuckle even as she said, "He's not so bad."
"Which is exactly what I knew you'd say. Which is why I maintain, you're not ready to quit."
"I sent my letter of resignation to the printer on my way here," Raina protested. "Twenty minutes from now, I will no longer be an employee of Messina Diamonds. Well, twenty minutes and two weeks."
Trinity shrugged. "If you say so." And with that, she opened the door and headed out of the bathroom.
"Aren't you going to wish me luck?"
"I would if I thought you were really going to quit," Trinity said over her shoulder before disappearing down the hall.
Raina merely glared at her friend's retreating back.
Trinity was right. Oh, not about Raina's inability to quit, but about the job being creativity smothering and life sucking. In the nine years she'd been with Messina Diamonds, she'd worked more overtime than most people worked in a lifetime.
Whenever he needed something, Derek called her first. Whether it was two in the morning or a beautiful sunny Saturday. He wasn't an unreasonable man; he expected no more of her than he did of himself. He just expected a lot of himself.
She'd put up with the relentless hours for two reasons: the money couldn't be beat and she was infatuated with Derek. But it was time to cut the cord. Now that she didn't need the money anymore, she could quit, walk away and get on with her life. Stop entertaining these childish fantasies that one day he'd snap out of it, realize she was a woman and whisk her off for a romantic getaway to Aruba.
'Cause let's face it. If that was going to happen, it would have happened years ago.
Raina swung by the printer on the way to Derek's office. As she made her way through the halls, she scanned over the letter, reassuring herself that it was as succinct and professional as she remembered. No need to humiliate herself with any unnecessary displays of emotion.
She knocked once on the door to his office before entering. As always, his office smelled faintly of wood oil and the lingering citrus scent of Derek's cologne. He stood with his back to her, gazing out the bank of windows at the view of downtown Dallas his twentieth-floor window afforded him. The fine wool of his Italian tailored gray suit stretched across his back, accenting the breadth of his shoulders.
"Mr. Messina, may I have a word?"
"Thank God you're here, Raina." Derek turned around as he spoke. "We've got a lot to do today."
A pang of loss stabbed her chest at his words. He'd started nearly every day with those same words. Then her eyes dropped from his face to the sleeping baby he held in his arms.
Instantly any regret she felt was swept away by a wave of confusion.
"What are you doing with a baby?"
Derek's expression shifted and for an instant he looked as baffled as she felt.
Raina's hand clenched involuntarily on the freshly printed letter of resignation, crumpling the crisp white paper. "Your baby? That's impossible."
"Normally I'd agree with you. But the results from the paternity test say otherwise." Derek's lips twisted into a grimace.