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Terri Phillips watched with a mix of irritation and amusement as her best friend, Nick Caroselli, walked briskly through the dining room of the bistro to their favorite booth near the bar, where they met every Thursday night for dinner.
With his jet-black hair, smoldering brown eyes, warm olive complexion and lean physique, heads swiveled and forks halted halfway to mouths as he passed. But Nick being Nick, he didn't seem to notice. Not that he was unaware of his effect on women, nor was he innocent of using his charm to get his way when the need arose.
Not that it worked on her anymore.
"Sorry I'm late," he said with that crooked grin he flashed when he was trying to get out of trouble. Fat snowflakes peppered the shoulders of his wool coat and dotted his hair, and his cheeks were rosy from the cold, meaning he'd walked the two blocks from the world headquarters of Caroselli Chocolate. "Work was crazy today."
"I've only been here a few minutes," she said, even though it had actually been more like twenty. Long enough to have downed two glasses of the champagne they were supposed to be toasting with.
He leaned in to brush a kiss across her cheek, the rasp of his evening stubble rough against her skin. She breathed in the whisper of his sandalwood soapa birthday gift from hercombined with the sweet scent of chocolate that clung to him every time he spent the day in the company test kitchen.
"Still snowing?" she asked.
"It's practically a blizzard out there." Nick shrugged out of his coat, then stuck his scarf and leather gloves in the sleevea habit he'd developed when they were kids, after misplacing endless sets of mittens and scarvesthen hung it on the hook behind their booth. "At this rate, we may actually get a white Christmas this year."
"That would be nice." Having spent the first nine years of her life in New Mexico, she'd never even seen snow until she'd moved to Chicago. To this day, she still loved it. Of course, having a home business meant no snowy commute, so she was biased.
"I ordered our usual," she said as Nick slid into his seat.
He loosened his tie, and gestured to the champagne bottle. "Are we celebrating something?"
"You could say that."
He plucked his napkin from the table and draped it across his lap. "What's up?"
"First," she said, "you'll be happy to know that I broke up with Blake."
Nick beamed. "Well, damn, that is a reason to celebrate!"
Nick had never liked her most recent boyfriendthe latest in a long and depressing string of failed relationships. He didn't think Blake had what it took to make Terri happy. Turned out he was right. Even if it did take her four months to see it.
But last week Blake had mentioned offhandedly that his lease was almost up, and it seemed silly that they should both be paying rent when he spent most of his time at her place, anyway. Despite being more than ready to get married and start a family, when she imagined doing it with him, she'd felt. .well, not much of anything, actually. Which was definitely not a good way to feel about a potential husband and father of her children. It was proof that, as Nick had warned her, she was settling again.
Nick poured himself a glass of champagne and took a sip. "So, what did he say when you dumped him?"
"That I'll never find anyone else like him."
Nick laughed. "Well, yeah, isn't that the point? He was about as interesting as a paper clip. With half the personality."
She wouldn't deny that he'd been a little, well bland. His idea of a good time was sitting at the computer, with it's twenty-seven-inch high-def monitor, for hours on end playing World of Warcraft while she watched television or read. The truth is, he would probably miss her computer more than her.
"He's an okay guy. He just isn't the guy for me," she told Nick. One day he would meet the game addict of his dreams and they would live a long happy life in cyberspace together.
Their waitress appeared to deliver their meal. A double pepperoni deep-dish pizza and cheesy bread. When she was gone, Nick said, "He's out there, you know. The one for you. You'll find him."
She used to think so, too. But here she was almost thirty with not a single prospect anywhere in her near future. Her life plan had her married with a couple kids already. Which is why she had decided to take matters into her own hands.
"There's something else we're celebrating," she told Nick. "I'm going to have a baby."
He bolted upright and set down his glass so hard she was surprised it didn't shatter against the tiled tabletop.
"What? When? Is it Blake's?"
"God, no!" She could just imagine that. The kid would probably be born with a game remote fused to its hands.
Nick leaned forward and hissed under his breath, "Whoever it is, he damn well better be planning to do right by you and the baby."
Always looking out for her, she thought with a shot of affection so intense it burned. When he wasn't getting her into trouble, that is. Although it was usually the other way around. It was typically her making rash decisions, and Nick talking sense into her. This time was different. This time she knew exactly what she was doing.
"There is no who," she told him, dishing them each out a slice of pizza. "I'm not actually pregnant. Yet."
Nick frowned. "Then why did you say you're having a baby?"
"Because I will be, hopefully within the next year. I'm going to be a single mom."
He sat back in his seat, looking stunned. "How? I mean, who's going to be the father?"
"I'm going to use a donor."
"A donor?" His dark brows pulled together. "You're not serious."
She shoved down the deep sting of disappointment. She had hoped he would understand, that he would be happy for her. Clearly, he wasn't. "Completely serious. I'm ready. I'm financially sound, and since I work at home, I won't have to put the baby in day care. The timing is perfect."
"Wouldn't it be better if you were married?"
"I've pretty much struck out finding Mr. Right. I always said that I wanted to have my first baby by the time I'm thirty, and I'm almost there. And you know that I've always wanted a family of my own. Since my aunt died, I've got no one."
"You've got me," he said, his expression so earnest her heart melted.
Yes, she had him, not to mention his entire crazy family, but it wasn't the same. When the chips were down, she was still an outsider.
"This doesn't mean we aren't going to be friends still," she said. "In fact, I'll probably need you more than ever. You'll be the baby's only other family. Uncle Nicky."
The sentiment did nothing to erase the disenchantment from his expression. He pushed away his plate, as if he'd suddenly lost his appetite, and said, "You deserve better than a sperm donor."
"I don't exactly have the best luck with men."
"But what about the baby?" Nick said, sounding testier by the second. "Doesn't it deserve to have two parents?"
"As you well know, having two parents doesn't necessarily make for a happy childhood."
His deepening frown said that he knew she was right. Though he didn't like to admit it, his childhood had left deep, indelible scars.
"I was hoping you would understand," she said, and for some stupid reason she felt like crying. And she hardly ever cried. At least, not in front of other people. All it had ever earned her from her auntwho didn't have a sympathetic bone in her bodywas a firm lecture.
"I do," Nick said, reaching across the table for her hand. "I just want you to be happy."
"This will make me happy."
He smiled and gave her hand a squeeze. "Then I'm happy, too."
She hoped he really meant that. That he wasn't just humoring her. But as they ate their pizza and chatted, Nick seemed distracted, and she began to wonder if telling him about having a baby had been a bad idea, although for the life of her she wasn't sure why it would matter either way to him.
After they finished eating, they put on their coats and were walking to the door when Nick asked, "Did you drive or take the bus?"
"Bus," she said. If she thought she might be drinking, she always opted for public transportation. If the man who had plowed into her father's car had only been as responsible, she wouldn't be an orphan.
"Walk back to the office with me and I'll drive you home."
The snow had stopped, but a prematurely cold wind whipped her hair around her face and the pavement was slippery, which made the two-block hike tricky. It was how she rationalized the fact that he was unusually quiet and there was a deep furrow in his brow.
When they got to the Caroselli Chocolate world headquarters building, it was closed for the night, so Nick used a key card to let them in. With a retail store taking up most of the ground floor, the lobby smelled of the chocolate confections lining the shelves. Everything from standard chocolate bars to gourmet chocolate-covered apples.
Nick felt around in his pockets, then cursed under his breath. "I left my car keys in my office."
"You want me to wait down here?"
"No, you can come up." Then he grinned and said, "Unless you're an industrial spy trying to steal the Caro-selli secret recipe."
"Right, because we both know what an accomplished cook I am." If there were a way to burn water, she would figure it out. Meaning she ordered out a lot, and the rest of the time ate microwave dinners.
They walked past the receptionist's desk and he used his key card to activate the elevator. Only authorized personnel and approved visitors were allowed above the ground floor. And no one but the Caroselli family and employees with special clearance were allowed in the test kitchen.
Nick was quiet the entire ride up to the fourth floor, and while they walked down the hall to his office. She had to smile as he opened the door and switched on the light, and she saw the lopsided stacks of papers and memos on the surface of his desk, leaving no space at all to work. She suspected that this was why he spent so much time on the top floor in the kitchen.
He opened the desk drawer and pulled out his car keys, but then he just stood there. Something was definitely bugging him and she needed to know what.
"What's the matter, Nick? And don't tell me nothing. I've known you long enough to know when something is wrong."
"I've just been thinking."
"About me having a baby?"
"It's what I want."
"Then there's something we need to talk about."
"Okay," she said, her heart sinking just the tiniest bit, mostly because he wouldn't look at her. And he must have been anticipating a long discussion because he took off his coat and tossed it over the back of his chair. She did the same, then nudged aside a pile of papers so she could sit beside him on the edge of his desk.
He was quiet for several long seconds, as though he was working something through in his head, then he looked at her and said, "You really want to do it? Have a baby, I mean."
"I really do."
"What if I had a better way?"
"A better way?"
He nodded. "For both of us."
Both of them? She failed to see how her plan to have a baby could in any way benefit him. "I'm not sure what you mean."
"I know the perfect man to be the father of your baby. Someone who would actually be around. Someone willing to take financial responsibility for the rest of the baby's life."
Whoever this so-called perfect man was, he sounded too good to be true. "Oh, yeah?" she said. "Who?"
He leaned forward, his dark eyes serious. "Me."
For a second she was too stunned to speak. Nick wanted to have a baby with her? "Why? You've been pretty adamant about the fact that you don't want children."
"Trust me when I say that it will be a mutually advantageous arrangement."
"What I'm about to tell you, you have to promise not to repeat to anyone. Ever.'''
"Say, 'I promise.'"
She rolled her eyes. What were they, twelve? "I promise. "
"Last week my grandfather called me, Rob and Tony to his house for a secret meeting. He offered us ten million dollars each to produce a male heir to carry on the Caroselli name."
"That was pretty much my first reaction, too. I wasn't sure I was even going to accept his offer. I'm really not ready to settle down, but then you mentioned your plan " He shrugged. "I mean, how much more perfect could it be? You get the baby you want and I get the money."
It made sense in a weird way, but her and Nick?
"Of course, we would have to get married," he said.
Whoa, wait a minute. "Married? Haven't you told me about a million times that you'll never get married?"
"You know how traditional Nonno is. I don't have a choice. But the minute I have the cash in hand, we can file for a quickie divorce. An ironclad prenup should eliminate any complications not that I expect there would be any."
"That sounds almost too easy."
"Well, we will have to make it look convincing."
Why did she get the feeling she wasn't going to like this? "What exactly do you mean by convincing?"
"You'll have to move into my place."
A fake marriage was one thing, but to live together? "I don't think that's a good idea."
"I have lots of space. You can have the spare bedroom and you can turn the den into your office."
Space wasn't the issue. They'd tried the roommate thing right after college, in an apartment more than spacious enough for two people. Between the random girls parading in and out at ridiculous hoursand the fact that Nick never picked up after himself and left the sink filled with his dirty dishes while the dishwasher sat empty, and a couple dozen other annoying quirks and habits he hadafter two months she'd reached her limit. Had she stayed even a day longer, it would have either killed their friendship, or she would have killed him.
"Nick, you know I love you, and I value our friendship beyond anything else, but we've tried this before. It didn't work."
"That was almost eight years ago. I'm sure we've both matured since then."
"Have you stopped being a slob, too? Because I loathe the thought of spending the next nine months cleaning up after you."
"You won't have to. I have a cleaning service come in three times a week. And for the record, I'm not particularly looking forward to you nagging me incessantly."
"I do not nag," she said, and he shot her a look. "Okay, maybe I nag a little, but only out of sheer frustration."
"Then we'll just have to make an effort to be more accommodating to each other. I promise to keep on top of the clutter, if you promise not to nag."
That might be easier said than done.