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Skylar pressed Send and waited for the personalized world clock to do its thing.
"Sioux Falls, South Dakota, U.S.A," she read off the screen. "Friday, 9:06 p.m. Christchurch, New Zealand, Saturday, 4:06 p.m."
Would he be working?
Scraping her fingernails along damp palms, she drew in a ragged breath and hopefully a bucket of courage. Too long had passed, about three months too long, but she could hide it no longer.
Phone, address book her fingers raced around the desk, tidying the jar of pens, straightening papers. Should she make a drink or go to the bathroom first? If you want to make an easy job seem mighty hard, just keep putting off doing it. Who said that? she wondered, then a knock at the door cranked up her heartbeat. A welcome relief? A stay of execution? But the butterflies stayed with her as she rose, tugging her long shirt down over her sweats.
It was easy to avoid people, living in the cottage by the stables, away from the prying eyes of the main house on the estate. No one had noticed a thing, but that wasn't surprising. After all, who ever noticed Skylar? But the concern in her brother's eyes on a rare visit from Deadwood last week came back to her now.
"Coming." Skylar yanked the door open and nearly passed out on the spot.
Zack Manning opened his mouth then closed it again with an audible snap, or that might have been the sound of her knees buckling.
He stared at her, the beginnings of a smile on his handsome face fading fast.
Her worst nightmare. Adrenaline flooded her system and she could not look away. She felt her lips move in a soundless prayer, felt the tension in herfingers, balled into fists by her sides.
After an age, he lowered his gaze, straight to her midriff. Released momentarily, she sagged against the doorjamb, but her relief was short-lived. Incredulous gray eyes shot back to her face, pinning her again, and she watched his tanned face leach slowly of color.
Skylar swallowed. "Zack," she said, her tone just above a whisper. Deny everything. He couldn't see what she had hidden under her long checked flannel shirt.
"When did you think you might put me in the picture?" Skylar's head dropped and she stared at her feet. "I was justI just got off the Net. The world clock " Her voice trailed off. Did she expect him to believe that when she was four months pregnant and hadn't bothered before now?
The crown of her downcast head prickled under his glare. Sighing, she moved to the side so he could enter. Skylar closed the door as he brushed past but did not turn immediately. Instead she leaned her forehead on the door, gathering her jumbled thoughts, but the truth of it was, she had no idea what to say.
Slowly she turned. Zack prowled the lounge of her cozy little cottage and he looked furious. Tightly controlled, but furious. His tall rangy form bristled with tension, his mouth was set in a harsh line.
She hovered by the door, hoping she didn't look as tragic as she felt.
Zack suddenly came to a halt and leaned forward with his large hands spread on the battered leather of her old sofa. "We used protection." His voice was flat.
Skylar's first thought was surprise that he did not question the baby's paternity, that he automatically assumed this was his child. Then she bit her lip to stop a rogue smile. Who would want her? After all, she'd been a virgin that night back at the beginning of February.
"The it broke, I guess." She kept her face down, unable to even say the word. Her face felt hot enough to fry an egg on. How excruciating, to be discussing this with him. "I thought" her breath hitched "it might have, when Maya was here."
Her best friend had burst into the unlocked cottage almost the moment they'd finished. Skylar had panicked, vaulting from her bed, pushing at him while throwing a robe on. Maya had a habit of just walking up the stairs and into her bedroom. "I think I would know!" His voice was low with an icy undertone.
Her shoulders jerked as she recalled the desperate whispers, how she had pushed him into her bathroom and closed the door. There was just enough time to kick his clothes under the bed and straighten the covers before a tearful Maya walked into the room.
Aside from the fantastic sex, it was a pretty lousy end to her first time.
"I would have known!" he insisted.
"The light was out," Skylar whispered. Images of herding him into her bathroom played through her mind like a film clip. His hand reaching for the light switch. Her hand slapping it away. "You probably couldn't see."
"And you didn't think to mention it at the time?"
"I wasn't sure." She rubbed her forehead, sighing wearily. It was her first time, how was she supposed to know? And even if she did, there was no way she could have broached such an intimate subject. Not with him.
"I didn'tdidn't think I knew you well enough."
"Didn't know me well enough?" He made a harsh sound that might have been a laugh.
"It wasn't like we were in a relationship," she mumbled. "It was just too embarrassing, talking aboutstuff like that."
She flicked him a nervous glance and a ray of hope soothed her a little. His mouth was more relaxed. A wash of anger still mottled his cheeks but his brows creased more in confusion now. Maybe he believed her.
"I couldn't see a thing," he said, as if to himself. "I just disposed of it and waited for you to get Maya out of the bedroom." He glanced at her sharply. "You were pretty keen to get rid of me then."
Skylar walked over to the dining table and sat. "I thought I'd be spared" she clasped her hands, prayerlike, on the table "since it was my first time."
His tone was incredulous. "Skylar, you breed horses. Virgin or not, surely you understood the implications of unprotected sex."
Squeezing her hands together, she nodded miserably. Zack leaned on the couch, his eyes boring into her. It was done. The worst was over. She cast him some furtive looks and his well-remembered features began to make an impact on her already heightened senses. Skin like his loved the sun and her own pale arms, bare from the elbow, looked insipid compared to his healthy tan. New Zealand's seasons were the opposite to here and South Dakota was just out of a long, cold winter. His sandy hair was still short at the back but longer than she remembered at the sides and front. The deep dimples that traced a line from his well-defined cheekbones to his strong chin were not in evidence tonight. Skylar had fallen head over heels for those dimples almost at first glance.
"Does anyone else know?"
She shook her head. Avoiding the family and her monthly nights out with Maya wasn't difficult when it was the busiest time of the year for the Fortune Stud.
"When were you thinking of telling them? After the birth, or "
His sarcasm intensified her guilt. "I'm sorry." "You're sorry." Zack began pacing the room again, as if he was circling his prey.
"I don'thold you responsible or anything."
"What?" The tension in his quiet voice screamed through her nerves. "I mean, financially "
There was a long, excruciating silence.
She sighed, still not looking at him. "I mean, this doesn't have to encroach on "
Zack sat down suddenly, as if all the air had just gone out of him. "No," he said dazedly, "I'm only the father."
He was ashen. Skylar rose, guilt clawing at her throat. "Do you want something? A drink?"
"Are you seeing someone?" He peered up at her in a lightning change of tack.
She ducked her head with a disbelieving smile, as if he'd said something ridiculous. "No." She twisted her hands together. "Who?"
His suspicious appraisal was unwarranted. "What are you doing here, anyway? I thought you weren't coming back till the fall."
"Blake called," he muttered. "He was worried about you, said you weren't yourself."
"He shouldn't have done that."
"Done what?" he asked.
"Gotten you involved."
Zack bared his teeth mirthlessly. "Since I'm only the father."
"He doesn't know anything."
"Makes two of us!" he barked, and Skylar jumped. There was an indeterminate slide inside that she'd only felt a couple of times before, and her hand instinctively went to her stomach.
"What is it?" Zack leapt to his feet. "What's wrong?" She looked up and blinked at the concern in his eyes. "Nothing."
"Why are you holding your stomach?" "The baby moved."
The look on his face shocked her, as did the jerky movements of his big hands as they dragged through his sandy hair.
"I can't believe this," he grated, "You'rewhat? Four months pregnant, the baby's moving and I've onlyI didn't know a thing."
That was pain darkening his eyes, she was sure. Pain making his voice sound raw.
"And I'm not to have any part of it?" Zack clipped out. "You want to cut me out of everything?"
Skylar twisted her hands together. "It's not like that." She shuffled on her feet, not knowing what to do or say to make things right, or if not right, better.
"I think I will have that drink," he told her curtly, after long moments had passed.
Why had she offered? The only alcohol Skylar had ever kept in the house was the odd bottle of wine if Maya was coming by. The day her pregnancy was confirmed, she'd thrown out a half-empty bottle in her fridge.
She peered at a dusty bottle of some apricot liqueur that must have been there for three or four years, then closed the cupboard and poured him a glass of water.
As soon as he'd taken it from her, she moved back, turning away from the waves of anger she sensed building in him again. She tottered a few steps, turning from him and heard his hard swallow.
What a mess. The word sorry danced around and around her mind, along with clumsy, clueless, stupid. The silence dragged on and she chewed on her thumbnail. "Where are you staying?"
Zack rapped out the name of Sioux Falls most prominent hotel, the Fortune's Seven, one of several her brothers owned.
Sleeping with him was the dumbest thing she'd ever done, although at the time, it surpassed all her amassed curiosity and fantasies. She should stick to horses for company. She'd never had a problem talking to horses. They didn't judge or reduce her to a quivering mass of nerves and resentment at her clumsy social skills.
"I'll take care of everything," she blurted, unable to take the silence anymore.
She heard another hard swallow. "That's great. That's just great, Skylar."
She spun around, stung by the bitterness in his voice. His searing eyes told her it was anything but great.
"The baby won't want for anything," she told him defensively. He must know that. She made good money doing what she was doing, quite apart from her heritage as one of the Fortune family. The city of Sioux Falls was practically owned by the Fortunes.
"Nothing but a father."
She sighed. "My father and Patricia will be crazy about a baby. And my brothers, well, they'll come around. The baby will be knee-deep in male role models."
"And you don't think that a biological father has any part in this warped family scene you've cooked up?"
"Zack, if you want to see it, have access, that'sthat's okay."
"Access?" he snapped, prowling around her in an ever-decreasing circle.
Skylar flinched, blinking. "If you want. What do you want?"
He gave her a withering look. "Thanks for asking.
Pick a date. We'll get the whole family around tomorrow and tell them we're getting married."
"What?" It was her turn to be shocked.
"Make it quick, Skylar. I can't be away from home for long."
"Married?" she whispered, her head spinning. He drained his glass and banged it down on the table. "My child is going to have two loving parents, not just one."
"I'm not marrying you, Zack." A hiccup escaped her throat. "Not marrying anyone."
He leaned down, his face inches from hers. "You may have cut me out of this till now, the worrying, the morning sickness, the movements. But that changes as of right now." She'd never seen his gray eyes glint like steel before. "We are going to be married, so get used to it."
She made a pitiful attempt at a smile. "That's justdumb."
"What's dumb?" he demanded. "Pretending it hasn't happened? Hiding it from everyone? I suppose you could have delivered it in the stables and told everyone the stork left it."
His flippant remark stirred an unusual lick of anger. "Maybe this is why I didn't tell you. I was afraid you'd want to take over, have it all your way."
Her voice rang out, clear and strong, making them both start. Skylar seemed to have lost her stammer. Normally she was hard-pressed to string five words together around Zack Manning.
He recovered first. "You've had your way. It isn't good enough."
"I'm not marrying you, Zack." "No kid of mine is going to be brought up without two parents and a wedding ring."
"This child will want for nothing," she repeated, stung at the assumption she couldn't provide for the baby.
This wasn't like her, to argue back. It must be her hormones kicking in. Her baby-protective hormones.
"No, it won't, because I'll take care of the both of you." Incredulous, she just stared at him, shaking her head.
"I don't believe you."
"Whatever." He shrugged and headed for the door.
"Where are you going?"
"If I'm not back in an hour, your father has used his shotgun on me."
"No!" Skylar leapt after him. "Zack, please. Let me tell him, my own way."
"You've had your way for four months. The next five are mine, I reckon."
She attempted to scoot around him to get to the door first. "He's an old man and he has problems of his own right now."
Zack blocked her with ease. "Your father is tough as an ox."
"Zack, Patricia has left him. He's devastated."
"Then a wedding to look forward to and a baby on the way should be just what he needs to take his mind off things."
"Will you please," she implored, "leave my father out of this until I've had a chance to think?"
Zack nearly combusted, his knuckles on the doorknob turning white. "A chance to think?"
"Just until I tell everyone. I'll keep you informed" He yanked the door open, rolling his eyes. "Yeah, right!"