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Oh, this was not good.
Ana Birch glanced casually over her shoulder to the upper level of the country club deck, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man in the dark leather jacket, praying that she had been mistaken, that her eyes had been playing tricks on her. Maybe it just looked like him. For months after he dumped her she would see his features in every stranger's face. The dark, bedroom eyes and the sensual curve of his lips. She would see his broad shoulders and lean physique in men she passed on the street. Her breath would catch and her heart would beat faster then sink miserably when she realized it was only someone who looked like him. In the eighteen months since he'd ended their affair, he hadn't so much as called her.
She finally caught sight of him standing by the bar, drink in hand, talking with one of the other guests. Her heart bottomed out, then climbed back up into her throat and lodged there. This was no illusion. It was definitely him.
Oh, God. How could Beth do this to her?
Hitching her ninemonthold son, Max, higher on her hip, she crossed the pristine, rolling green lawn, her heels sinking into the soft, spongy sod. Note to self: never wear spiked heels to an outdoor kids' party. Or a silk jacket, she added with annoyance, as Max wiggled and slid south again down her side.
In her skinny jeans and kneehigh boots, with her freshly dyed, sirenred hair, she was the antithesis of the society mothers who drank and socialized while harried nannies chased their children. A fact that clearly escaped no one as curious glances followed in her wake. But no one dared insult the heiress to the Birch Energy empire, at least not to her face, which Ana found both a relief and an annoyance.
She spotted her cousin Beth standing by the gigantic, inflatable, plasticballfilled, germbreeding monstrosity, watching her sixyearold daughter, Piper, the birthday girl, screaming and flailing inside with a dozen other children.
She loved Beth like a sister, but this time she had gone too far.
Beth saw them approaching and smiled. She didn't even have the decency to look guilty for what she had done, which didn't surprise Ana in the least. Beth's own life was so abysmally uneventful and boring, she seemed to take pleasure meddling in other people's business. But there was more at stake here than harmless gossip.
"Maxie!" Beth said holding out her arms. Max screeched excitedly and lunged for her, and Ana handed him over. Beth probably figured that Ana couldn't physically assault her while she was holding a baby.
"Why is he here?" Ana demanded under her breath.
"Who?" Beth asked, playing the innocent card, when she knew damned well who. "Nathan."
Ana shot a look over her shoulder at Nathan Everette, chief brand officer of Western Oil, standing by the railing, drink in hand, looking as conservatively handsome and casually sophisticated as he had the day Beth had introduced them. He hadn't been Ana's type, as in: he had a successful career, and he didn't have tattoos or a police record. But he was a bigwig at Western Oil, so having a drink with him had been the ultimate "screw you" to her father. Then one drink became two, then three, and when he asked to drive her home she'd thought, what the heck, he's pretty harmless.
So much for that brilliant theory. When he kissed her at the door she'd practically burst into flames. Despite what she led people to believe, she wasn't the precocious sex kitten described in the social pages. She was very selective about who she slept with, and it was never on a first date, but she had practically dragged him inside. And though he might have looked conservative and even came off as a bit stuffy, the man definitely knew how to please a woman. Suddenly sex had taken on an entirely new meaning for her. Then it was no longer about defying her father. She just plain wanted Nathan.
Though it was only supposed to be one night, he kept calling and she found herself helpless to resist him. She was head over heels in love with him by the time he dumped her. Not to mention pregnant.
Nathan glanced her way and their eyes met and locked, and she found herself trapped in their piercing gaze. A cold chill raised the hair on her arms and the back of her neck. One that had nothing to do with the brisk December wind. Then her heart started to beat faster as that familiar awareness crept through her and heat climbed from her throat to the crest of her cheeks. She tore her eyes away.
"He was Leo's college roommate," Beth said, tickling Max under the chin. "I couldn't not invite him. It would have been rude."
"You could have at least warned me."
"If I had, would you have come?"
"Of course not!" She'd spent the better part of the past eighteen months avoiding him. Having him this close to Max was a risk she simply could not take. Beth knew how she felt about this.
Beth's delicate brow pinched, and she lowered her voice to a harsh whisper. "Maybe I thought it was time you stopped hiding from him. The truth is bound to come out. Don't you think it's better now than later? Don't you think he has a right to know?"
As far as Ana was concerned, he could never know the truth. Besides, he'd made his feelings more than clear. Though he cared for her, he wasn't in the market for a committed relationship. He didn't have time. And even if he did, it wouldn't be with the daughter of a direct competitor. That would be the end of his career.
Wasn't that the story of her life. For her father, Walter Birch, owner of Birch Energy, reputation and appearances had always meant far more to him than his daughter's happiness. If he knew she'd had an affair with the CBO of Western Oil, and that man was the father of his grandson, he would see it as the ultimate betrayal. He had considered it a disgrace that she'd had a child out of wedlock, and he'd been so furious when she wouldn't reveal the father's name that he cut off all communication until Max was almost two months old. If it wasn't for the trust her mother had left her, she and Max would have been on the streets.
For years she had played by her father's rules. She'd done everything he asked of her, playing the role of his perfect little princess, hoping she could win his praise. She dressed in clothes he deemed proper and maintained a grade point average that would make most parents glow with pride, but not her father. Nothing she ever did was good enough, so when being a good girl got her nowhere, she became a bad girl instead. The negative reaction was better than no reaction at all. For a while, at least, but she'd grown weary of that game, too. The day she found out she was pregnant she knew for her baby's sake it was time to grow up. And despite his illegitimacy, Max had become the apple of his grandfather's eye. He was already making plans for Max to one day take over Birch Energy. If her father knew Nathan was Max's daddy, out of spite he would disown them both. How could she in good conscience deny her son his legacy?
That was, in part, why it was best for everyone if Nathan never knew the truth.
"I just want you to be happy," Beth said, handing Max, who had begun to fuss, back to her.
"I'm going to take Max home," Ana said, hoisting him up on her hip. She didn't think Nathan would approach her, not after all this time. Since their split he had never once tried to contact her. Not a phone call or an email, or even a lousy text. He'd gone cold turkey on her.
But running into him by accident wasn't a chance she was willing to take. Not that she thought he would want anything to do with his son. "I'll call you later," she told Beth.
She was about to turn when she heard the deep and unmistakeable rumble of Nathan's voice from behind her.
Her pulse stalled then picked up triple time.
Damn it. Ana froze, her back to him, unsure of what to do. Should she run? Turn and face him? What if he looked at Max and just knew? But would running be too suspicious?
"Well, hello, Nathan," Beth said, airkissing his cheek, giving Ana's arm a notsogentle tug. "I'm so glad you could make it. You remember my cousin, Ana Birch?"
Ana swallowed hard as she turned, tugging Max's woolen cap down to cover the small blond patch behind his left ear in his otherwise thick, dark hair. Hair just like his father. He also had the same dent in his left cheek when he smiled, the same soulful, liquid brown eyes.
"Hello, Nathan," she said, swallowing back her fear and guilt. He didn't want you, she reminded herself. And he wouldn't have wanted the baby. You did the right thing. He had to have heard about her pregnancy. It had been the topic of El Paso high society gossip for months. The fact that he'd never once questioned whether or not he was the father told her everything she'd needed to know.
He didn't want to know.
He looked exactly the same, not that she'd expected him to change much in a year and a half. And Nathan's cool assessment of her, the lack of affection and tenderness in his gaze, said she had been nothing more to him than a temporary distraction. A passing phase.
She wished she could say the same, but she missed him as much now, ached to feel that souldeep connection that she'd never experienced with any other man, the feelings of love that had snuck up on her and dug in deep, and seemed to multiply tenfold every time he showed up at her door. Every fiber of her being screamed that he was the one, and she would have sacrificed anything to be with him. Her inheritance, her father's lovenot that she believed for one second that Walter Birch loved anyone other than himself.
There wasn't a day that passed when she looked into her son's sweet face and didn't feel the sting of Nathan's rejection like a dagger through her heart. And now, the compulsion to throw herself in his arms and beg him to love her was nearly overwhelming.
Pathetic, that was what she was.
"How have you been?" he asked in a tone that was, at best, politely conversational, and he did little more than glance at her son. Hadn't he expressed quite emphatically that at this point in his career he didn't have time for a wife and kids? But she hadn't listened. She had been so sure that she was different, that he could love her. Right up until the moment he walked out the door.
She adopted the same polite tone, even though her insides were twisting with a grief that after all this time still cut her to the core. "Very well, and yourself?"
She didn't doubt that. The explosion at Western Oil had been big news. There had been pages of negative press and unfavorable television spotscourtesy of her father, of course. As chief brand officer, it was Nathan's responsibility to reinvent Western Oil's image.
"Well, if you'll excuse me," Beth said. "I have to see a man about a cake." Beth shot her a brief, commiserative smile before she scurried off, bailing on Ana when she needed her most.
She hoped Nathan would walk away too. Instead, he chose that moment to acknowledge her son, who was wiggling restlessly, eager for attention.
"This is your son?" he asked.
She nodded. "This is Max."
The hint of a smile softened his expression. "He's cute. He has your eyes."
Attention hound that he was, Max squealed and flailed his arms. Nathan reached out to take his tiny fist in his hand and Ana's knees went weak. Father and son, making contact for the first time and hopefully the last. Sudden tears burned the corners of her eyes, and a sense of loss so sharp sliced through every one of her defenses. She needed to get out of here before she did something stupid, like blurt out the truth and turn a bad situation into a catastrophe.
She clutched Max closer to her, which he did not appreciate. He shrieked and squirmed, flailing his chubby little arms, knocking his wool cap off his head.
Before she could reach for it, Nathan crouched down and grabbed it from the grass. She cupped her hand around Max's head, hoping to cover his birthmark, but when Nathan handed her the hat, she had no choice but to let go. She angled her body so he wouldn't see the side of Max's head, but as she reached out to take the cap, Max shrieked and lunged for Nathan. He slipped against her silk jacket and she nearly lost her grip on him. Nathan's arms shot out to catch him just as she regained her grip and, heart hammering, she hugged Max to her chest.
"Strong little guy," Nathan said.
"He's highspirited," she said, realizing too late that Max's left ear was in plain view. Please don't let him notice. She swiftly swung Max around and deposited him on the opposite hip. "Well, it was nice to see you again Nathan, but I was just leaving."
Without waiting for a reply she turned to walk away, but before she could take more than a step, Nathan's hand clamped down hard around her forearm. She felt it like a jolt of electricity.
She cursed silently and turned to face him, and the second she saw his eyes she could tell that he knew. He had figured it out.
Damn, damn, damn.
That didn't mean she couldn't deny it. But not telling him and outright lying were two very different things. Besides, the birthmark was going to be tough to explain.
Oh, well, so what if he knew? He'd been quite firm that he didn't want children. He probably wouldn't even care if the baby was his, as long as she agreed never to tell anyone and never asked for his support. And why would she? Her trust fund kept her and Max living quite comfortably. Nathan could just go on with his life and pretend it never happened.
Nathan reached up and gently cupped her son's face, turning his head so he could see behind his ear. Thinking it was a game, Max batted at his hand and wiggled in her arms.
She'd heard of people going ghostly white but had never actually witnessed it until just then. He definitely knew, and he clearly wasn't expecting this. Hadn't even considered it being a remote possibility.
"A private word?" he asked, jaw tense, teeth gritted.
"Where?" They were at a party with at least two hundred other people, most of whom knew she and Nathan wouldn't have a lot to talk about. Where could they possibly go without drawing attention to themselves? "You wouldn't want to be seen with the daughter of a direct competitor," she snapped in a voice filled with so much pentup resentment she barely recognized it as her own. "What would people think?"