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Sam took a deep sustaining breath and muttered, 'Don't bottle it now,' to herself as she approached the young woman who sat behind a large glass desk. With her blonde hair and hourglass figure the woman had the kind of beauty that always attracted men's attention.
Diminutive redheads with freckles, on the other hand, were not so universally lusted after, at least in Sam's experience, although it had seemed for a while that Will had thought differentlyuntil the day she had walked in and found her erstwhile fiancé in bed with a beautiful blonde.
Normally when Sam's thoughts touched on this memorable occasion she experienced a wave of nausea that turned her sensitive stomach inside out, but not this time. This time her stomach was already paralysed with sheer terror.
Her eyelashes brushed her cheeks as she squeezed her eyes closed and took a second breath, willing her frantically racing heart, which felt as though it were imminently about to break through her ribcage, to slow. She forced a smile; if a person acted as though they expected to be shown the door, they probably would be.
She had taken several hours to achieve the appearance of someone who might consider strolling into the headquarters of a multinational empire and demanding to see the man who was top of the food chain as something she did every day of the week, but, catching sight of her reflection in a mirrored panel on the opposite wall, she knew her efforts had been wasted.
This was not going to work.
Ignoring the voice of pessimism, or rather reality, in her head, Sam pinned the smile back on and cleared her throat. The sound attracted the attention of the receptionist, but only briefly because at that exact moment the glass lift doors to Sam's left silently opened to reveal another blonde, a tall voluptuous one wearing a very small red dress.
The girl behind the desk stared and so did Sam; so also did the men with cameras who had appeared from nowhere as if by magic.
The ravishing blonde seemed totally unfazed by the flash photography and the volley of questions the paparazzi flung in her direction. She simply bared her perfect teeth in a brilliant smile and proved that, even though she had made the transition from modelling to Hollywood, she still knew how to strut her stuff. Flanked by two large muscular bodyguards, she glided through the foyer pausing once or twice to give the hungry press a pose while responding with an enigmatic smile and a coy, 'No comment,' to their demands to know if she and Cesare were back together.
As the door closed leaving only the heavy scent of the actress's exotic perfume in the air Sam was wondering much the same thingtalk about bad timing! The last thing any man wanted to hear was the news she had come to deliver, but she imagined that this was doubly true of a man who had just been reconciled with the love of his life.
Sam sighed and tried to push the image of the actress from her head; she wasn't here to compete for the Italian's attention or his affections. She wasn't even slightly interested in Cesare Brunelli's love life and she had no wish to be part of it, something she would make quite clear.
Her only reason for being here was simple: tell him and leave. The ball would then be in his court and if he decided not to pick it up then that would make life a lot simpler.
All she had to do was tell him.
It was now or never!
At the moment never was looking pretty damn good!
She winced as her designer shoes pinched. They had been a bargain, but were also a painful half a size too small, though the confidence boost they gave her far outweighed any discomfort.
'I'm ' She stopped as she tried to introduce herself to the woman behind the desk, her mouth open, her confident manner wobbling into pessimistic anxiety.
What was she meant to say?
I'm Sam, but that won't mean anythingyour boss doesn't know my name, he doesn't even know the colour of my eyes, he's oblivious to the fact I have freckles, and my hair is ginger. But I thought that given the circumstances it was only polite to let him know my news face to face as opposed to some more impersonal methodI'm having his baby.
As she stood in the reception of Cesare's offices, Sam thought of the differences between an Italian billionaire and a girl who juggled her finances each month. She had probably earned less during her entire working life than Cesare did in a minute! Still, things were improving professionallyshe'd put in four years of unglamorous work on the local newspaper in the Scottish market town where she had been born, making tea before rising to cover the weddings and church fêtes. Now, finally, her hard work had paid dividends and she had landed a job, although a very junior one, admittedly, at a national daily here in London.
'Yeah, things are better than they were in my day,' the established older female journalist who had taken her under her wing had told her. 'You have talent, Sam,' she conceded, making Sam glow with pride.
'But,' she warned, 'you need to give one hundred per cent if you want people to think you are serious and, while scruples aren't a bad thing exactly, you need to be a bit more flexible. Oh, and it goes without saying that the last thing you want at this point in your career is a high-maintenance relationship.' At this point she had laughed and Sam had joined in. 'Or a family professional suicide!'
Sam wasn't laughing now as she considered this new and frankly scary detour in her hitherto predictable life. She had been scaredshe still wasbut there had never been any tortured soul-searching; it had simply never occurred to her not to have this baby.
Underneath the scariness and the panic there was a deep-seated and totally inexplicable feeling of rightness This was not a feeling she anticipated the father of her accidental baby would share. But just because he wouldn't want anything to do with the baby didn't mean he didn't have the right to know.
Sam had steeled herself for his inevitable anger and suspicion that she had told herself would be normal for any man in such circumstances. What was less normal was the strange sense of inner serenity she had tapped intoa serenity she hadn't known she possessed, although she also wondered whether it might just be a symptom of delayed shock.
A shaky sigh left her lungs as Sam shook her head. She had only had a fortnight to get used to the idea and it still hadn't fully sunk in yetin fact the whole situation had a surreal quality.
Her hand went to her belly, still flat under her jacket and her lips curved into a wry smile. No doubt the idea would start to feel more real when her waistline began to expand.
She addressed the girl behind the desk once more. 'I'm Samantha Muir and '
The girl looking slightly bored now the actress and her noisy entourage had left, lifted the phone she was speaking into away from her ear and, without making eye contact with Sam, said, 'First left.'
Sam blinked. This was not the way any of her mental versions of this scene had played.
The shoes must really have worked!
The shoes in question were at that moment nailed to the floor. She couldn't move, she was so shocked at not even having her identity queried or the reason for her visit questioned.
'First left?' she echoed, inwardly wondering why she was still standing there. The woman wanted her to go through that door, she wasn't to know Sam didn't have an appointment so she shouldn't under any circumstances volunteer the information.
What was holding her back? Those inconvenient scruples, that awful compulsion to tell the truth in moments when a white lie or silence worked much better, or simply gutless fear?
With a hint of impatience the receptionist nodded and waved long red-painted nails in the direction of the door before turning her attention back to the phone.
This is too easy, persisted the voice of suspicion in Sam's head.
'Easy is good,' Sam retorted under her breath. If this was a case of crossed wires it was working to her advantage so she'd be a dope not to go with the flow. She lifted her chin and once again fixed a confident smile on her pale faceshe was tapping into previously unexpected acting talentsand walked through the door without knocking.
It was a bit of an anticlimax, as the room she found herself in was not large. The only furniture was a small desk in one corner and some easy chairs set along one wall. A door beside the desk opened and a slim thirty-something man with thinning sandy hair and a harassed manner walked in, then dropped the file of papers he was holding when he saw her.
'You're a woman.'
Under normal circumstances Sam would have responded to this accusation, because it was definitely an accusation, with ironic humour. But humour and irony were both beyond her at the moment.
Instead she nodded cautiously and said, 'Hello, I'm Sam Muir and I'd like'
'Sam!' He slapped a hand to his forehead and groaned. 'That explains it, of course. And just when I thought that this day couldn't get any worse.'
Sam, feeling increasingly bewildered, gave another vague nod. 'I'm here to see Mr Brunelli ?'
As she spoke her mental barrier slipped and a dark image flickered across her retina. The blurry lines solidified into features until she could see each strongly sculpted line and individual angle of Cesare Brunelli's face.
It seemed amazing now that she had had no precogni-tion of danger the first time she had looked into the face of the tall man who had towered over her.
The impact of his beauty had been like a physical blow drawing the breath from her burning lungs like the heat from a furnace being drawn into a vacuum.
She had been dimly conscious of emotions deep inside her stirring, breaking free of self-imposed restraints, but had felt strangely disconnected from what had been happening to her. Her innate ability to distance herself emotionally and analyse what she was doing and why had deserted her totally. Of course she hadn't recognised this until it had been too latethe damage had been done!
When she had been with him she hadn't been able to control her pounding heartbeat, the weakness in her shaking limbs or the burning heat that had washed over her skin.
It wasn't just the stern symmetry and powerful planes of his bronzed patrician features, or the curve of his mouth, it was no individual feature but the combination that made him so beautiful.
Even now, twelve weeks later, the memory of his face made Sam's throat ache, but now she could think about her reaction and what had happened later more objectively.
She could not deny he was a good-looking man who possessed an arrogant sexuality she was not totally immune to, but what had happened had been the result of a freak set of circumstances rather than anything more momentous.
He would probably turn out to be quite ordinary, she thought. She'd probably just built him up in her mind into something extraordinary to defend her own behaviour because nothing short of a rampant, irresistible sex god could be responsible for her fall from grace. She was looking for excuses.
Whereas the plain truth was there were no excuses; she'd been reckless and stupid. She'd had a moment of weaknessactually an entire night of weakness, but this was something she chose not to dwell onand now she had to live with it.
She would probably see him and discover he bore no resemblance to her romanticised image of a brooding, damaged hero in need of comfort that only she could give.
Quickly she shied away from the subject of giving and turned her thoughts instead to the present. Dragging her attention back to the sandy-haired young man, she noticed he was rifling through some papers he now had in his hand.
'This might be a problem It looks like your CV has gone walkabout too, my God!' he exclaimed in disgust. 'That woman really was a total liability!' He put aside the papers and glanced up at Sam, adding as an apologetic afterthought, 'Sorry, it's not your fault.'
Actually it was.
A fresh wave of disgust and shame washed over Sam.
Who else was there to blame? She'd kissed Cesare first, kissed a total stranger.
The memory of him was indelibly stamped into her consciousnessthe way his face had been illuminated by the sudden flash of white lightning outside the window, and the way things had twisted painfully in her chest when she had seen the terrible bleakness that had shone deep in his incredible eyes and the utter frustration stamped on his dark features.
Unable to voice the words of comfort, unable to force any sound besides a choking sigh past the emotional congestion in her throat, she had instead reached out and taken his face between her hands.
The actions had been spontaneous, and, she had realised almost immediately, a mistake. He had stiffened at the touch of her mouth, his own lips remaining unresponsive under the pressure of hers.
Kissing a gorgeous man who didn't want to be kissed might be something that any number of women her age could laugh off with a shrug, but Sam did not possess that skill.
She hadn't wanted to laugh; she'd wanted to die from sheer mortification. She had started to lift her head, started to mutter a mortified apology, and would have removed her hands had his own fingers not come up to cover hers and hold them against his face.
Sam's heart thudded again as she remembered his fingers tangling in hers, the fine muscles along his jaw tensing, his nostrils flaring as he slurred something thick in his own language.
She had felt rather than heard the groan that had seemed to be dragged from deep inside him before being lost in her mouth.
She had started it!
It was absolutely no excuse that he had looked as if he needed kissing.
Of course, if he hadn't kissed her back and the storm hadn't knocked out the electricity there would have been no problem. No problem, no scalding shame and no baby!
She bit down hard on her lip and subdued the images that rose shameful and graphic in her head It had happened and it was pretty pointless given the consequences in pretending it hadn't, but nothing could be achieved by endless post-mortems.
Tension drawing the soft lines of her pale face taut, her hand went unconsciously to her stomach. He would not want to know, which suited her fine. She could walk out of the door knowing that she had done the right thing.