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Matt smiled as he slid his homemade lasagna onto the table, alongside the crusty loaf of garlic bread and fancy tossed salad that were already there.
"Would you like some wine?" He dropped the oven mitts and reached for the bottle of red he'd picked out to go with the meal. Like his dinner companion, it was rich and voluptuous and very easy on the tongue.
"I would love some." Ariane smiled as she held up her glass.
He filled it to the halfway mark, then did the same for his own before settling into his seat. It had been a long time since he'd cooked dinner for a woman, but he'd planned tonight carefully. Ariane was the first woman he'd been interested in since Camille, and after four dates, he was pretty sure she was amenable to his anticipated ending for the evening.
And if he wasn't nearly as excited as he should be about that ending, then he needed to get over it. Camille was gone, and after spending the first few weeks leaving messages on her cell phone and several more weeks moping around, he'd finally figured out that she wasn't coming back.
Even then, after he'd accepted that Camille was out of his life for good, it had taken him a while to move on. But he'd finally done it. He'd found a woman who was interested in him—as both a person and a good time. And now he was convinced this was for the best. His time with Camille, while lovely, had been an aberration, a step outside his comfort zone into chaos and insanity.
It had been a bad move and one he had no desire to repeat. All he'd gotten from trying something different was a bruised heart, a battered ego and a headache the size of Texas.
No, it was better all around if he stuck to his regular, controlled agenda from now on. And tonight, that agenda included taking his relationship with Ariane to the next step.
"This was so sweet, Matt. It's been a long time since a man cooked me dinner."
"It's been a long time since I've cooked a woman din ner. I hope I haven't lost my touch."
"I'm sure it will be delicious." She smiled warmly at him.
As he dished up the lasagna, he asked, "How's that case going? The one that was giving you such trouble?"
"It's an absolute disaster. I'm defending this corporation and it's obvious to everyone but them that they're guilty as hell of violating state and federal sexual harassment laws. I start presenting my case on Monday and I can only hope I can pull some magic out of my hat to confuse the jury about what was really going on in that factory."
A curl of unease started in Matt's belly at her words, but he ignored it. It was her job to defend corporations against lawsuits like this, he reminded himself. Of course she would do whatever she could do help her client win—even if they were guilty.
"Mmm, this is wonderful."
"So how about you? How's that design going?"
"I finished it—and it is brilliant, if I do say so myself." He grinned over his glass of wine. "The clients are flying in tomorrow to see it, so I'll know for sure then. But Reece thinks we've knocked it out of the park."
"That's fabulous." She took another bite. "And really, so is this lasagna. How did you learn to cook like this?"
"I grew up with three sisters and my mom always believed that I should learn whatever the girls learned, and vice versa. So when she taught them to cook a few recipes, she made sure I was in the kitchen right along with them—even if I would have preferred to be playing football or basketball."
"I can just see you—a cute little boy with big eyes peering into his mother's spaghetti-sauce pot."
He snorted. "More like a surly preteen whining about how I'd never need to know how to cook because when I grew up I was going to live on pizza and hamburgers."
"Well, I'm glad your mother didn't listen."
Their eyes met across the table. "So am I."
Her smile turned soft, intimate. It was one of the things that had attracted him to her when they'd met a few weeks before—that and her softly rounded curves. Camille had been all angles and mile-long legs and it was nice to hold on to a woman who wasn't so…sharp.
Add in Ariane's sense of order and dedication to the University of Texas's football team—she was a Long-horn, too—and he'd been sold.
"You know, Matt, I really like you."
"I like you, too, Ariane." His heart beat a little faster in anticipation. "Very much."
She pushed her plate away. "Then maybe we should skip dessert…"
There they were, the words he'd been waiting to hear for weeks. He'd expected his body to respond right away, but now that she'd extended the invitation, he wasn't nearly as interested as he'd expected to be. Still, she was a beautiful, intelligent woman and would make a great girlfriend.
Without giving himself any more time to think, Matt slid his chair back and reached for her plate. "And what would you like to do in lieu of dessert? " he asked, making sure to keep his voice low and teasing.
She stood, as well. "Oh, I'm sure we can think of something."
He reached for her hand, but a knock at his front door stopped him before he could pull her against him. "Why don't you go into the family room? I'll join you as soon as I answer that."
"Don't be long."
"Believe me, I won't be." He strode to the door, pulled it open with a yank. Then froze as he came face-to-face with the woman who had haunted his dreams for nearly three long months.
For a minute, the whole world stood still while he soaked in the vision that was Camille. Her black hair was shorter and sassier than it had been when she'd left, but everything else was the same.
The flawless expanse of golden skin her halter dress showed off.
The wicked curve of her sexily uneven mouth.
The killer legs that had had him waking up hard and sweaty and frustrated as hell for weeks after she'd left.
She'd come back, he told himself as his traitorous body responded to her proximity. Even after everything she'd said, after ignoring his text messages and phone calls for months, she'd come back.
How pathetic did it make him that he was excited by that fact?
She stepped a little closer, leaned against the doorway, and her signature scent—lavender and brown sugar and sweet, ripe strawberries—wrapped itself around him. He went from semiaroused to rock hard in an instant.
Still, he didn't say anything. Didn't touch her, though every instinct he had demanded that he grab on to her before she pulled another vanishing act.
The thought had the same effect as a freezing shower, and the connection between them shattered. He couldn't hold her tightly enough to keep her from leaving again— she was like the wind, blowing from one place to another with little thought to the destruction she left in her path.
He wasn't going to be part of the fallout again.
"What are you doing here, Camille?" he demanded, forcing a calm into his voice that he was far from feeling. But she was an expert at power games and there was no way in hell he was revealing a weakness. Not when she was so good at drawing first blood.
"I was in the neighborhood." Even the slow, honeyed drawl was the same. "Thought I'd drop by."
"Long walk from Italy."
She shrugged, unconcerned. "Yeah, well, Florence is overrated."
"No. But you know me. I get bored if I stay in one place too long."
"I remember." He kept his voice cool, made sure none of the confusion—or desire—he was feeling leaked through.
"Can I come in?"
"Now's not really a good time."
Uncertainty flashed across her face—was there and gone so quickly that he told himself he'd imagined it. "It won't take long. I just wanted to talk for a few minutes."
"Talk?" This time he let her see his skepticism—and a little bit of the anger he thought had dissipated in the weeks since she'd walked out. "Since when do you want to talk about anything? I thought action was more your thing."
As soon as the words were out, he wanted to call them back. Her smile had turned predatory, those amethyst-colored eyes running over him from head to toe. It was as if she was cataloging each one of his flaws and weaknesses, and he'd never felt more vulnerable.
"I wouldn't call it bitter."
"No? Then what would you call it?"
"Smart." He grabbed the edge of the door, made as if to close it. "Now, if you will excuse me—"
"I really do need to talk to you."
"Yeah, well, I really needed to talk to you all those times I called you." Shit. He did sound bitter.
She sighed heavily, as if he was just too high maintenance for her. It was like setting a match to dry kindling and all the emotions that had been seething in him for the past few months came roaring out.
"Look, Camille, I don't know what kind of game you're playing, but count me out."
"I thought you liked games—at least, that's what you told me the night we met."
"I did—until you kept changing the rules without warning."
"I wasn't the one who changed the rules, sweets. You were."
He started to snap back, but how could he when she was right? She'd told him up front that she was only in town for a few weeks, that the thing between them couldn't go anywhere. He was the one who hadn't listened.
He was the one who'd gotten burned.
But at least he'd learned his lesson—he was done playing with fire.
"I'm tired, Camille, and I have company. Either say what you came here to say or leave—I really don't care. But I don't have the time or the inclination to stand out here all night shooting the breeze. I'm letting bugs in."
Her smile drooped a little at the edges, and she didn't answer for long seconds. Guilt slinked through him. Maybe he'd been too harsh. He could have said things more nicely, could have—
No! Damn it, no. She was the one who had walked out on him. The one who had come back here after ignoring all his attempts to reach out to her in the hopes of picking up where they'd left off. And now, just when he'd started to move on, here she was. So why exactly should he make it easy for her?
Why should he have anything to do with her at all?
"Matt?" Ariane's voice drifted down the hall. "Can you bring my wine when you come in?"
"Aah." The hint of vulnerability was long gone, replaced by the party-girl mask he'd learned to hate during their brief affair. "You've got that kind of company."
He felt himself flush at her words, at the look in her eyes. But he didn't have anything to feel sheepish about, he reminded himself. She was the one who'd broken things off.
"Sure, Ariane." He raised his voice a little, so Ariane could hear him. "I'll be there in a minute." Then turned back to his most recent ex-lover.
"It was good seeing you, Camille. You look great. But, as you can see, I'm a little busy. So if you wouldn't mind heading out—"
"I do mind."
"I should be in Florence right now, combing museums with a glorious man named Stefano and eating pasta on the patio of a little trattoria."
Who the hell was Stefano? Matt bit back the instinctive spurt of jealousy that flared. It wasn't his business what she did—or who she did it with. She'd made that abundantly clear when she'd walked out on him.
"So why aren't you?"
"Because I'm three months pregnant."
And just like that, his world imploded.
Oh, God, had she really just blurted it out like that? No finesse, no work-up? Just I'm pregnant, with you're the father strongly implied?
No wonder Matt looked like he'd fall over if she breathed too hard.
She'd planned on breaking it to him much more calmly. Had figured he'd invite her in for a cup of coffee and she could work her way around to it. But he hadn't invited her in, hadn't wanted anything to do with her.
His reaction had hurt her, made her angry—and careless. Of course, now that it was too late, she would do anything to take back her hasty words. Matt hadn't deserved to find out about his impending fatherhood so callously.
"Three months?" he finally asked, his voice low and hoarse.
"As in twelve weeks?"
"Yes. I got pregnant that last week in Austin." To his credit, he didn't ask if she was sure. Of course, that could be more from the shock than from any consideration for her. But somehow, she doubted it.
"I know this isn't what you were expecting," she began nervously. "And I'm sorry to spring it on you—believe me, when I first found out I didn't look any better than you do. And I thought about ending it—a baby doesn't exactly fit into my lifestyle—but when it got to be crunch time, I just couldn't do it. Maybe that's not fair to you, I don't know. All I know is that I'm having this baby and I figure you have the right to know about it."
"Get rid of it?"
She thought that sounded like a question, but she wasn't sure. Maybe it had been an order. Taking a deep breath, Camille flipped her hair out of her face—she wanted to make sure she had a good look at his face when they discussed this—and said, "I can't. I know it would make things easier and maybe it's the best decision. But I just…can't."
"That wasn't a suggestion. I was trying to decipher what you—" He swore, ran an unsteady hand over his face. "I wasn't prepared for this, Camille."
"Neither was I. Believe me. When I started throwing up in Florence I was sure I'd caught a bug—and not one of the nine-months variety."
"Matt? Are you coming?" Once again, the female voice floated down the hallway and Camille was glad to realize she didn't feel quite so sucker punched this second time. Not that she had any right to complain— and she wasn't. But still, knowing Matt was with another woman was…disconcerting.
He swore again, a little more loudly. "Uh, yeah, Ariane. Give me a minute."
He looked so flustered that she couldn't help feeling contrite. Blurting it out like that had been a ridiculous thing to do, especially when Matt was obviously on a date. But she'd given herself a pep talk all the way over here and she hadn't been able to hold the words in any longer. She'd wanted to say them—to somebody.