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Your son is my son." The strange man looked past her into the hallway, searching.
Stella Greco wanted to slam the front door in his face. At first she'd wondered if he was a stripagram like the one her friend Meg hired for her surprise party two years ago. But the expression on this man's face was too serious. Tall, with unruly dark hair that curled around his collar, stern bronzed features and stonegray eyes, he filled her doorway like a flash of lightning.
Now his words struck her like a harsh bolt. "What do you mean your son?" Her mother lion instincts recoiled against him. "Who are you?"
"My name is Vasco de la Cruz Arellano y Montoya. But I go by Vasco Montoya when I'm abroad." A smile flickered at the corner of his wide, sensual mouth, but not enough to reassure her in any way. "May I come in?"
"No. I don't know you and I'm not in the habit of letting unknown men into my house." Fear crept up her spine. Her son didn't have a father. This man had no business here. Could she simply shut the door?
The sound of nurseryrhyme music wafted toward them, betraying the presence of her child in the house. Stella glanced behind her, wishing she could hide Nicky. "I have to go."
"Wait." He stepped forward. She started to push the door shut. "Please." His voice softened and he tilted his head. A lock of dark hair dipped into his eyes. "Perhaps we could go somewhere quiet to talk."
"That won't be possible." She couldn't leave Nicky, and she certainly didn't intend to bring him anywhere with this man. She prayed Nicky wouldn't come crawling down the hallway looking for her. Every maternal instinct she possessed still urged her to slam the door in this man's toohandsome face. But apparently she was too polite. And there was something about this strange man that made it hard. "Please leave."
"Your son " He leaned in and she caught a whiff of musk mingled with leather from his battered black jacket. "My son " his eyes flashed " is heir to the throne of Montmajor."
He said it like a proclamation and she suspected she was supposed to fall down in surprise. She kept a firm hold on the door frame. "I don't care. This is my private home and if you don't leave I'll call the police." Her voice rose, betraying her fear. "Now go."
"He's blond." His brow furrowed as he looked over her shoulder again.
Stella spun around, horrified to see Nicky scooting along the floor with a huge grin on his face. "Ah goo."
"What did he say?" Vasco Montoya leaned in.
"Nothing. He's just making sounds." Why did people expect a barely oneyearold to be speaking in full sentences? She was getting tired of people asking why he couldn't talk properly yet. Every child developed at his own pace. "And it's none of your business, anyway."
"But it is." His eyes remained fixed on Nicky, his large frame casting a shadow that fell through the doorway.
"Why?" The question fell from her lips as a frightening possibility occurred to her.
"He's my son." He peered at her boy.
She swallowed. Her gut urged her to deny his claim. But she couldn'tnot really. "What makes you think that?"
The intruder's gaze stayed riveted on Nicky. "The eyes, he has the eyes." Nicky stared back at him with those big gray eyes she'd tried to attribute to her maternal grandmother. Her own eyes were a tawny hazel.
Nicky suddenly darted past her, reached out a chubby hand and grabbed one of Vasco's fingers. The big man's face creased into a delighted smile. "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance."
Stella had snatched Nicky back into the hallway and clutched him to her chest before she took a breath.
"Ga la la." Nicky greeted the man with a smile. Somehow that just made it worse.
"This is a gross invasion of my privacy. Of our privacy," Stella protested, clutching her son tighter. A horrible feeling in the pit of her stomach told her this really was the father of her son. She lowered her voice. "The sperm bank assured me that donor identity was confidential and that my information would never be shared with anyone."
His eyes met hersoceangray and fierce. "When I was young and foolish I did a lot of things I now regret."
She knew Nicky had the right to contact his father once he came of age, but she'd been assured the father did not have the same rights.
"How did you find me?" She wanted her child to be hers alone, with no one else around to make demands and mess things up.
If this even was the father. How could he know?
He cocked his head. "A donation or two in the right pocket reveals most things." He had a slight accent, not a strong one but a subtle inflection warming his voice. He certainly had an oldworld sense of entitlement and the importance of bribery.
"They gave you the names of the women who bought your samples?"
"They could have lied."
"I saw the actual records."
He could be lying right now. Why did he want Nicky? Her son wriggled against her, squawking to be put down, but she didn't dare release her grip.
"He might not be yours. I tried sperm from several donors." She clutched Nicky close. Now she was lying. She'd become pregnant the first cycle.
He lifted his chin. "I saw your records, too."
Her face heated. "This is outrageous. I could sue them."
"You could, but it doesn't change the one really important fact." He looked down at Nicky and his harsh gaze softened. "That's my son."
Tears sprang to her eyes. How could a perfectly ordinary day turn into a nightmare so fast?
"You must have fathered loads of children through the bank. Hundreds even. Go find the others." She grasped at straws.
"No others." He didn't take his eyes off Nicky. "This is the only one. Please may I come in? This is no conversation to have in the street." His tone was soft, respectful.
"I can't let you in. I don't truly have any idea who you are and you freely admit that you're here because of information you obtained illegally." She straightened her shoulders. Nicky wriggled and fussed in her arms.
"I regret my mistake and wish to make amends." His wide gray eyes implored her.
An odd tender feeling unfurled in her stomach. She shoved it back down. Who was this man to play on her feelings? With his looks, he was probably used to women rolling over every time he asked. Still, she couldn't seem to shut the door on him.
"What's his name?"
The stranger's question, asked with a tender half smile at Nicky, startled her.
She hesitated. Telling him Nicky's name would give him the right to call him by it. Almost an invitation. But what if he was Nicky's real donor? His father the word made her quake deep inside. Did she have the right to drive him away?
"Can I see some ID?" She was stalling as much as anything. A man capable of paying for information could pay for fake ID. But she needed time to think.
He frowned, then reached into his back pocket and pulled out a money clip. He plucked a card from it. A California driver's license. "I thought you were from Mont " What was the name he'd said again?
"Montmajor. But I lived in the U.S. for a long time."
She peered at the picture. A slightly younger, less worldweary version of her visitor stared back. Vasco Montoya was indeed the name on the card.
Of course, you could buy driver's licenses on every street corner these days, so it didn't prove anything. She hadn't seen the donor's name at any time, so she still had no idea if Vasco Montoya was the man whose frozen semen she'd paid for.
It was all so ugly. People had laughed when she told them how she planned to conceive her child. Then they'd frowned and clucked about turkey basters and told her to just go find a man. She'd wanted to avoid that complication. Frozen semen seemed safer at the time.
"Which sperm bank did you donate to?" Maybe he was bluffing.
He took his license back from her trembling fingers and shoved his money clip back in his pocket. "Westlake Cryobank."
She gulped. The right place. She hadn't told anyone, not even her best friend, where she went. Somehow that made the whole clinical procedure easier to forget. Now this tall, imposing male was here to shove it back in her face.
"I know you don't know me. I didn't know how to approach you other than to come in person and introduce myself." His expression was almost apologetic, accompanied by a Mediterranean hand gesture. "I'm sorry to shock you and I wish I could make this easier."
He shoved a hand through his dark hair. "You know my name. I've made my fortune in gemstone mining.
I have offices and employees all over the world." He pulled another card from his money clip. She took it with shaky fingers, which wasn't hard, since she still held Nicky clamped to her chest with the other arm.
Vasco Montoya, President Catalan Mining Corporation
Catalan. The word struck her. She'd chosen her donor partly because he'd proudly proclaimed his Catalan ancestry. It seemed exotic and appealing, a taste of old Europe and a proud culture with a glorious literary history. She'd always been a sucker for that kind of thing.
And those eyes were unmistakable. The same slategraywith a hint of stormy oceanblueas her son's.
"I don't want to hurt you. I just want to know my son. As a mother, I'm sure you can imagine what it would be like to have your own child out there, walking around, and you've never met him." Again his gaze fixed on Nicky, and powerful emotion crossed his face. "You would feel like part of your heart, of your soul, is out there in the world, without you."
Her heart clenched. His words touched her and she recognized the truth in them. How could she deny her son the right to know his own father? Vasco's attitude had softened, along with his words. Her maternal instincts no longer screamed at her to shove him back down her steps. Instead she felt an equally powerful urge to help him. "You'd better come in."
Vasco closed the front door and followed Stella Greco down the hall and into a sunny living room with colorful toys scattered on the wood floor and on the plump beige sofa.
Strange emotions and sensations tightened his muscles. He'd come here from a sense of duty, keen to tie up a loose end that could cause succession problems in a future he didn't want to think about.
He'd wondered how much money she'd take to give him the child. Most people had their price, if it was high enough, and he knew he could promise the boy a good life in a loving environment.
Then those big gray eyes met his, wide with the innocent wonder of childhood. Something exploded in his chest at that moment. Recognition, at a gut level.
This was his son and already he felt a connection with him stronger than anything he'd ever experienced. She'd put the boy down and the toddler had crawled up to him. While his anxious mother watched, Vasco crouched and held out his finger again. His heart squeezed as the toddler took a tight hold of it.
"What's his name?" She never had answered his question.
"Nicholas Alexander. I call him Nicky." She said the words slowly, still reluctant to let him into their private world.
"Hello, Nicky." He couldn't help smiling as he said it.
"Hi." Nicky's grin showed two tiny white teeth.
"He said hi." Stella's face flushed. "He said a real word!"
"Of course he did. He's greeting his father." His chest swelled with pride. Though he could take no credit for Nicky other than providing half his DNA. Shame crept through him at the callous act of donating something as precious as the building blocks of life for a few dollars.
At the time he'd been glad to throw away the royal seed as he'd rather have died than dip into the royal coffers.
He glanced at Stella. He'd had his reasons for donating his sperm ten long years ago, but what were her reasons for buying it? His preliminary research told him Stella Greco worked at the local university library, restoring books. He'd expected a pinched spinster type, older and forbidding. What he found instead was a total surprise.
She was pretty, too pretty to need to purchase sperm at a store. Her hair was cut in a shiny, goldenbrown bob. Freckles dotted her neat nose and her hazel eyes were wide and kind. He'd be surprised if she was even thirty, certainly not old enough to get desperate over her biological clock expiring. Did she perhaps have a husband who was infertile?
He glanced at her hand and was relieved to see no ring. He didn't need another person in the mix. "You must move to Montmajor with Nicky." Thoughts of paying her to give him the child seemed foolish, now. If he'd connected so forcefully with his own flesh and blood in only a few seconds, the maternal bond was not something that could be dissolved by any amount of cold cash.
"We're not moving anywhere." Still standing, she hugged herself. The living room of the little Arts and Crafts bungalow was small but pleasant. She wasn't rich. He could tell that from the simple furnishings and the tiny blue car parked outside.
"You'll have a comfortable home in the royal palace and you'll want for nothing." The palace he loved with his soul, and that he'd once been cruelly driven from, was the perfect place. She'd know that once she saw it.
"I like California, thank you. I have a good job restoring rare books at the university, and I love our little house here. The schools are excellent and it's a nice, safe, friendly community for Nicky to grow up in. Believe me, I did a lot of research."
Vasco glanced around. Sure, the house was pleasant, but the sound of nearby traffic marred the peace and California was filled with temptations and traps for a young person. "Nicky would be far better off in the hills and fresh air of Montmajor. He'd have the best teachers."
"We're staying here, and that's final." She crossed her hands over her chest. She wasn't tall, maybe five foot five, but she had an air of authority and determination that amused and intrigued him. He could tell she had no intention whatsoever of changing her carefully thoughtout plans.
Luckily, he had decades of experience in negotiation, and rarely failed. He could offer financial incentives or other temptations she'd be loath to resist. Although she might not have her price in purely financial terms, everyone had dreams and if he could tap into those she'd eventually be persuaded.
Or he could seduce her. Now that he'd seen her this possibility held tremendous appeal. Seduction offered the benefits of instant intimacy and unlimited enjoyment. Definitely something to consider.