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Marcus Reid knew damn well that he should stay away from Hayley Bravo. Far, far away.
Since she dumped him and left Seattle, he'd worked harder than ever, rising before dawn to push his body to the limit in his personal gym, burning the midnight oil at the office, driving himself to exhaustion every day. Evenings when he didn't have to be at his corporate headquarters, he kept himself good and busy. He dated, making it a point to get out morewith gorgeous, attentive, appreciative women. Women more glamorous than Hayley, women more sophisticated than Hayley. Agreeable women. Women who had sense enough not to ask the impossible of him.
Yeah. It had taken him months to get over Hayley. A lot longer, if you wanted the hard truth, than he'd expected. Getting over Hayley had turned out to be one hell of a job. Almost as hard as dealing with his ex-wife Adriana's final desertion.
But he'd managed it.
Or so he kept telling himself. He was over Hayley. Done. Finished.
So why was he standing on the doorstep of her Sacramento apartment on that cold evening in mid-December?
Since Marcus had no intention of answering that particular question, he banished it from his mind with a shake of his head.
The complex she lived in was perfectly ordinary, built around a central courtyard, the boxy units accessed from outside. Low to midrange in price, he would guess. She'd lived a lot better when she worked for him. He'd seen to it. Not only a fat salary, but a big expense account and a luxury car, compliments of his company, Kaffe Central. And then there were the gifts he'd showered on her .
Now she was on her own, she'd be watching her budget. That bothered him,the thought of her pinching pennies to get along. Though their relationship had ended, some part of him still wanted to take care of her.
Light glowed in the window to the left of her door. Through the partly open blinds, he could see she had put up a Christmas tree. And he could hear music, faintly. A Christmas song?
Hayley was into the Christmas crap big-time. Strings of lights twined on the railing of her second floor landing, where she'd made herself a sort of patio with a couple of wicker chairs and a wooden crate for a table. A miniature tree, tiny lights twinkling, topped the crateand he was stalling, checking out her Christmas decorations instead of getting on with it.
Time to make a move. Ring the bell. Or get the hell out of there.
He sucked in a big breath, lifted his hand and gave her doorbell a punch.
After a few never-ending seconds, the door swung wide. The music from inside swelled louder: "White Christmas."
And there she was, the light from behind her haloing her red hair. Those eyes that managed to be blue and gray and green all at once went wide with surprise. And a bright smile died unborn on that mouth that he'd loved to kiss.
"Marcus!" Her expression was not encouraging. Far from it. She looked pained. Slightly panicked, even. She brought her hand to her mouth and then lowered itto her stomach.
He tracked the movement, watched as her palm settled on the round shape of her belly, fingers curving gently. Protectively. He stared at her pale hand and the roundness beneath it, trying to accept what he saw.
It was enormous, her stomach. It looked as if she had a beach ball tucked in there, beneath the tentlike red sweater she wore.
Too stunned to fake politeness, he shut his gaping mouthand then opened it again to accuse roughly, "You're pregnant." He lifted his gaze and met her eyes again.
She was frowning, more worried now than panicked. "Marcus. Are you okay? You look"
"I'm fine." Outright lie. His stomach churned, spurting acid. He needed to hit someone. Preferably whatever bastard had dared to put his hands on her, to do that to her.
God. Hayley with some other guy, having that other guy's baby
It didn't seem possible. He couldn't believe it. At the same time as he knew this couldn't be happening, some rational part of his mind saw clearly the ridiculousness of his disbelief. Why the hell wouldn't she be with some other guy? Some guy who made her happy. Some guy who loved her and cherished her and wanted to make a family with her .
"White Christmas" ended. Bells jingled as "Winter Wonderland" came next.
"Marcus " She reached out a hesitant hand.
"Please come in and"
He cut her off by moving back just slightly, out of the way of her touch.
"Oh, Marcus " She looked at him with what might have been pity.
He wanted to shout at her then, tell her loud and clear that she never, ever had to feel sorry for him. But he didn't shout. Far from it. Instead, he said what he'd planned to say. He doled out the stock phrases, just to show her that finding her big as a house with some other guy's kid didn't affect him in the least.
"I'm in town on business. Thought I'd stop by, see how you're doing ."
She wrapped her arms around herself, resting them on that impossible belly, and looked at him steadily. Now those eyes of hers looked sad. "I'm all right."
He parodied a smile. "Great. Did I catch you having dinner?"
She pressed her lips together and shook her head.
He craned to the side, hoping to see beyond her into the apartment. "Your, uh, husband home?"
She took forever to answer. Finally, so gently, she told him, "No, Marcus."
He waited, his gaze on her face, carefully not glancing down again at her bulging stomach.
Finally she heaved a big sigh. "Look. Are you coming in or not?"
She stepped back. He crossed the threshold. She shut the door, closing the two of them in that apartment together.
The place was small. Straight ahead a hallway led into shadow. To the right was a narrow kitchen with a tiny two-seater table. On the left was the living room area. There, the brightly lighted tree already had a pile of festively wrapped presents beneath it. The TV cabinet dripped garland and fake red berries. She even had a Nativity scene on one of the side tables.
Leave it to Hayley to do Christmas full out. Last December, she'd
But he wasn't going to think about last December. Last December was gone. Over. Done. He was only here to say hi and wish her and her babyand the guy, too, damn him to hell, whoever he wasa nice life.
"Your coat," she suggested softly, reaching out. He dodged her touch again. "It's all right. I'll keep it on."
She dropped her outstretched arm. "Okay." It was her turn to fake a smile. "Well. Have a seat." She indicated the blue couch in the living room. Obediently, he marched over there and sat down.
"A drink?" she offered, still hovering there on the square of tile that served as her entrance hall.
He realized a drink sounded pretty damn good. He needed a drink at a moment like this. Something to numb his senses, blur his vision. Something to make it so he didn't care that Hayley was having someone else's kid. "Great. Thanks."
"No. A real drink. Anything but whiskey."
She blinked. She knew how he felt about booze, as a rule. "Well, sure. I think I've got some vodka around here. No tonic or anything, though "
"Vodka. Some ice. Whatever."
She turned toward the kitchen. He watched her in there as she got down a glass. She disappeared for a moment. He heard ice cubes clinking. And then she was back in his line of vision, glass in one hand, a bottle in the other. She poured the clear liquor over the ice, put the lid back on the bottle and came to him, that belly of hers leading the way.
"Thanks," he said, when she handed it over. He knocked it back in one swallow and held out the glass again. "Another."
She opened her beautiful mouth to speakbut he glared at her and she said nothing. Silent but for a sigh, she took the glass and waddled back to the counter, where she poured him a second one. She approached again and held out the glass. He took it. And then he watched with bleak fascination as she moved to a chair across from him and carefully lowered herself into it.
The liquor, thankfully, had no smell. He considered knocking back the second glass. But he had a feeling if he did, it might just come right back up again. So he sipped the disgusting stuff slowly and told himself to be grateful that it had no more taste that it had smell, just a slight unpleasant oiliness on the tongue.
She asked, her chin tipped high, "How did you know where I live?"
"I kept track of you." Did he sound like some stalker? He qualified, "Just your address. Your phone number " It was nothing obsessive, he'd told himself. But he did feel a certain responsibility for her. He'd hired someone to get her address and phone number after she left him.
And about that phone number? More than once, when he was pretty sure she wouldn't be home, he'd dialed that number, just to hear her voice on her answering machine and know that if he needed to get in touch with her again, he could.
"I wanted to be sure," he said, "that you were doing okay."
"Well." She lifted both hands, as if to indicate everything around herthe cramped apartment, the blue couch he sat on, the tree in the window, the baby inside her. And the husband who wasn't home yet. "Doing fine."
He should have had the guy he hired find out more. He would have gotten some advance warning about that other man, about the baby coming. If he'd known, he wouldn't be here now, drinking vodka and looking like a fool.
"Your husband " he said, and then didn't know how to go on.
She shook her head. "Marcus, I"
"Stop." He tipped his glass at her. "On second thought, I really don't want to know." Another gulp and the second drink was finished. So was he. He set the glass down and stood. "I can see you're okay. That's good. You have a great life." He headed for the door.
But he wasn't listening. Four long strides and he reached the door.
As he yanked the door open, she called again, "Damn it, Marcus!" He shut the door behind him. Ignoring the sound of her calling after him, he made for the stairs, taking them two at a time, his throat tight and his chest aching.
In under a minute, he was across the central courtyard of her apartment complex, out the wrought-iron gate to the street and behind the wheel of his rented Lexus. He stuck the key in the ignition and turned it over. The engine purred.