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It was a hot, beautiful Georgia morning, but all Hattie Parker noticed was the taste of desperation and panic.
"I need to speak to Mr. Cavallo, please. Mr. Luc Cavallo," she clarified quickly. "It's urgent."
The thirtysomething administrative assistant with the ice-blue suit and matching pale, chilly eyes looked down her perfect nose. "Do you have an appointment?"
Hattie clenched her teeth. The woman had an expensive leather date book open in front of her. Clearly, she knew Hattie was an interloper and clearly she was doing her best to be intimidating.
Hattie juggled the baby on her hip and managed a smile. "Tell him it's Hattie Parker. I don't have an appointment, but I'm sure Luc will see me if you let him know I'm here."
Actually, that was a bald-faced lie. She had no clue if Luc would see her or not. At one time in her life he had been Prince Charming, willing and eager to do anything she wanted, to give her everything she desired.
Today, he might very well show her the door, but she was hoping he would remember some of the good times and at least hear her out. They hadn't parted on the best of terms. But since every other option she had considered, legal or not, had gone bust, it was Luc or no one. And she wasn't leaving without a fight.
The woman's expression didn't change. She was sheer perfection from her ash-blond chignon to her exquisitely made-up face to her expensive French manicure. With disdain, she examined Hattie's disheveled blond hair, discount store khaki skirt and pink cotton blouse. Even without the drool marks at the shoulder, the outfit wasn't going to win any fashion awards. It was hard to maintain a neat appearance when the little one grabbed handfuls of hair at regular intervals.
Hattie's legs felt like spaghetti. The stoic security guard in the lobby had insisted that she park her stroller before entering the elevator. Seven-month-old Deedee weighed a ton, and Hattie was scared and exhausted, at the end of her rope. The last six weeks had been hell.
She took a deep breath. "Either you let me see Mr. Cavallo, or I'm going to pitch the biggest hissy fit Atlanta has seen since Scarlett O'Hara swished her skirts through the red Georgia dust." Hattie's chin trembled right at the end, but she refused to let this supercilious woman defeat her.
Scary lady blinked. Just once, but it was enough to let Hattie know that the balance of power had shifted. The other woman stood up with a pained sigh. "Wait here." She disappeared down a hallway.
Hattie nuzzled the baby's sweet-smelling head with its little tufts of golden hair. "Don't worry, my love. I won't let anyone take you, I swear." Deedee smiled, revealing her two new bottom teeth, her only teeth. She was starting to babble nonsense syllables, and Hattie fell more in love with her every day.
The wait seemed like an eternity, but when Luc's assistant finally returned, the clock on the wall showed that less than five minutes had elapsed. The woman was definitely disgruntled. "Mr. Cavallo will see you now. But he's a very busy man, and he has many other important commitments this morning."
Hattie resisted the childish urge to stick out her tongue at the woman's back as they traversed the hallway carpeted in thick, crimson plush. At the second doorway, the woman paused. "You may go in." The words nearly stuck in ice woman's throat, you could tell.
Hattie took a deep breath, no longer concentrating on her would-be nemesis. She kissed the baby's cheek for luck. "Showtime, kiddo." With far more confidence than she felt, she knocked briefly, opened the door and stepped into the room.
Luc ran a multimillion-dollar business. He was accustomed to dealing with crises on a daily basis. The ability to think on his feet was a gift he'd honed in the fires of corporate America.
So he wasn't easily thrown off balance. But when Hattie Parker appeared in his office, the first time he'd seen her in over a decade, his heart lodged in his throat, his muscles tensed and he momentarily forgot how to breathe.
She was as beautiful now as she had been at twenty. Sun-kissed porcelain skin, dark brown eyes that held hints of amber. And legs that went on forever. Her silky blond hair barely brushed her shoulders, much shorter than he remembered. He kept the width of his broad mahogany desk between them. It seemed safer that way.
As he struggled with shock, he was stunned to realize the woman he had once loved was holding an infant. Jealousy stabbed sharp and deep. Damn. Hattie was a mother. Which meant there was a man somewhere in the picture.
The sick feeling in his gut stunned him. He'd moved on a long, long time ago. So why was his chest tight and his pulse jumping like a jackrabbit?
He remained standing, his hands shoved in his pockets. "Hello, Hattie." He was proud of the even timbre of his voice.
She was visibly nervous. He indicated the chair closest to him and motioned for her to sit. For a brief moment, Luc caught a glimpse of sexy legs as Hattie's skirt rode up her thighs. The baby clung to her neck, and Hattie wriggled in the chair until she was modestly covered.
He examined her face, deliberately letting the silence accumulate in tense layers. Hattie Parker was the girl next door, a natural, appealing beauty who didn't need enhancement. Even dressed as she was in fairly unflattering garments, she would stand out in a room full of lovely women.
At one time, she had been his whole world.
And it irked him that the memories still stung. "Why are you here, Hattie? The last time we had sex was a lifetime ago. Surely you're not going to try and convince me that baby is mine."
The mockery and sarcasm made her pale. He felt the pinch of remorse, but a guy needed to wield what weapons he could. The man he was today would not be vulnerable. Not ever again.
She cleared her throat. "I need your help." He lifted a brow. "I'd have thought I would be the last person on your go-to list."
"To be honest, you were. But it's serious, Luc. I'm in big trouble."
He rocked on his heels. "What's her name?" The non sequitur made Hattie frown. "This is Deedee."
Luc studied the baby. He didn't see much of Hattie in the child. Maybe the kid took after her dad.
Luc leaned over and punched the intercom. "Marilyn can you come in here, please?"
It was a toss-up as to which of the two women was more horrified when Luc phrased his next request. When Marilyn appeared, he motioned to the baby. "Will you please take the little one for a few minutes? Her name is Deedee. Ms. Parker and I need to have a serious conversation, and I don't have much time."
Hattie wanted to protest, he could tell. But she reluctantly handed the baby over to Luc's assistant. "Here's a bottle. She's getting hungry. And you'll need this bib and burp cloth. You don't want to let her ruin your nice suit."
Luc knew his assistant would be fine. She might be a cold fish, but she was relentlessly efficient.
When the door closed, Luc sat down in his leather office chair. It had been specially ordered to fit his long, lanky frame. He steepled his hands under his chin and leaned back. "So spill it, Hattie. What's going on in your life to make you seek me out? As I recall, it was you who dumped me and not the other way around."
She flushed and twisted her hands in her lap. "I don't think we need to go there. That was a long time ago."
He shrugged. "All right then. We'll concentrate on the present. Why are you here?"
When she bit her lip, he shifted in his chair uneasily. Why in God's name did he still have such vivid memories of kissing that bow-shaped mouth? Running his hands through that silky, wavy hair. Touching every inch of her soft, warm skin. He swallowed hard.
Hattie met his gaze hesitantly. "Do you remember my older sister, Angela?"
He frowned. "Barely. As I recall, the two of you didn't get along."
"We grew closer after our parents died."
"I didn't know, Hattie. I'm sorry."
For a moment, tears made her eyes shiny, but she blinked them back. "Thank you. My father died a few years after I graduated. Lung cancer. He was a two-pack-a-day man and it caught up with him."
"And your mother?"
"She didn't do well without Daddy. He did everything for her, and without him, the world was overwhelming to her. She finally had a nervous breakdown and had to be admitted to a facility. Unfortunately, she was never able to go back to her home. Angela and I sold the house we grew up in everything Mom and Dad had, but it wasn't enough. I practically bankrupted myself paying for her care."
"Angela didn't help?"
"She told me I should back off and let the state look after Mother. especially when Mom retreated totally into an alternate reality where she didn't even recognize us."
"Some people would think your sister made sense."
"Not me. I couldn't abandon my mother."
"When did you lose her?"
He looked at her left hand, but it was bare. Where was her husband in all this? Was the guy a jerk who bailed on Hattie rather than help with the mom? And what about the baby?
Suddenly, it became clear. Hattie needed to borrow money. She was proud and independent, and things must be really bad if she had humbled her pride enough to come to him.
He leaned forward, his elbows on the desk. No one who knew their history would blame him if he kicked her out. But though his memories of her were bitter, he didn't have it in him to be deliberately cruel, especially if a child was involved. And though it might be petty, he rather liked the idea of having Hattie in his debt a kind of poetic justice. "You've had a rough time," he said quietly. "I'll be happy to loan you however much money you need, interest free, no questions asked. For old time's sake."
Hattie's face went blank and she cocked her head. "Excuse me?"
"That's why you're here, isn't it? To ask if you can borrow some money? I'm fine with that. It's no big deal. What good is all that cash in the bank if I can't use it to help an old friend?"
Her jaw dropped and her cheeks went red with mortification. "No, no, no," she said, leaping to her feet and pacing. "I don't need your money, Luc. That's not it at all."
It was his turn to rise. He rounded the desk and faced her, close enough now to inhale her scent and realize with pained remembrance that she still wore the same perfume. He put his hands gently on her shoulders, feeling the tremors she couldn't disguise.
They were practically nose to nose. "Then tell me, Hattie. What do you need from me? What do you want?"
She lifted her chin. She was tall for a woman, and he could see the shades of chocolate and cognac in her irises. Her breathing was ragged, a pulse beating at the base of her throat.
He shook her gently. "Spit it out. Tell me."
She licked her lips. He could see the tracery of blue veins at her temples. Their long separation vanished like mist, and suddenly he was assaulted with a barrage of memories, both good and bad.
The soft, quick kiss he brushed across her cheek surprised them both. He was so close, he could smell cherry lip gloss. Some things never changed. "Hattie?"
She had closed her eyes when he kissed her, but her lashes lifted and her cloudy gaze cleared. Astonishment flashed across her expressive features, followed by chagrin and what appeared to be resignation.
After a long, silent pause, she wrinkled her nose and sighed. "I need you to marry me."
Luc dropped his hands from her shoulders with unflattering haste. Though his expression remained guarded, for a split second some strong emotion flashed in his eyes and then disappeared as quickly as it had come. Most men would be shocked by Hattie's proposal.
Most men weren't Luc Cavallo.
He lifted a shoulder clad in an expensive suit. The Cavallo textile empire, started by their grandfather in Italy and now headquartered in Atlanta, had made Luc and his brother wealthy men. She had no doubt that the soft, finely woven wool fabric was the product of a family mill. His mouth twisted, faint disdain in his expression. "Is this a joke? Should I look for hidden cameras?"
She felt her face go even hotter. Confronting her past was more difficult than she had expected, and without the baby to run interference, Hattie felt uncomfortably vulnerable. "It's not a joke. I'm dead serious. I need you to marry me to keep Deedee safe."
He scowled. "Good Lord, Hattie. Is the father threatening you? Has he hurt you? Tell me."
His intensity made her shiver. If she really had an abusive husband, there was no doubt in her mind that Luc Cavallo would hunt him down and destroy him. She was making a hash of this explanation. "It's complicated," she said helplessly. "But no, nothing like that."
He ran two hands through his hair, mussing the dark, glossy strands. The reminder function on his BlackBerry beeped just then, and Luc glanced down at it with a harried expression. "I have an appointment," he said, his voice betraying frustration. "Obviously we're not going to resolve this in fifteen minutes. Can you get a sitter for tonight?"
"I'd rather not. Deedee has been through a lot of trauma recently. She clings to me. I don't want to change her routine any more than necessary." And the thought of being alone with Luc Cavallo scared Hattie. This brief meeting had revealed an unpalatable truth. The Hattie who had been madly in love with Luc was still lurking somewhere inside a heart that clung to silly dreams from the past.
He straightened his tie and strode to the other side of his desk. "Then I'll send a car for you." As she opened her mouth to protest, he added, "With an infant seat. We'll have dinner at my home and my housekeeper can play with the child while we talk."
There was nothing ominous in his words, but Hattie felt her throat constrict. Was she really going to try to convince Luc to marry her? Who was she kidding? He had no reason at all to humor her. Other than perhaps sheer curiosity. Why hadn't he shown her the door immediately? Why was he allowing her to play out this odd reunion?
She should be glad, relieved, down on her knees thanking the good lord that Luc wasn't already married.
But at the moment, her exact emotions were far more complicated and far less sensible.
She was still fascinated by this man who had once promised her the moon.