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Katya Petrova clutched her stomach as the plane hit a small air pocket. Her insides lurched and she felt a flutter down low as the plane continued its smooth journey.
The baby? She kept her hand in place and waited, every cell in her body straining to detect a tiny foetal movement. Come on, baby. The seconds ticked by. Nothing. A few more. Still nothing.
Well, duh! She removed her hand impatiently. As if there would be. She was just twelve weeks. The baby was only about ten centimetres long! She had a good few weeks yet, maybe even up to ten according to some books, before she'd feel his or her first movements.
She made a mental note to stop reading books. She needed to stop this fantasy land she kept drifting into. There was absolutely no point getting more attached than she was because there was no way she could be a mother to this baby. No way.
It was bad enough that she already loved the baby more than her own life. She had to toughen up. Stop thinking of it as 'the baby' or 'he' or 'she'. 'It' was so much more removed. And that's what she needed to beremoved. Because she was doing the right thing here. When you loved somebody you wanted the best for them, right? And she was so not the best thing for this baby.
And that was why she was here on this plane flying to meet a man she barely knew. To find out if the best thing for the baby was its father.
By the time she disembarked an hour later and had gone through passport control and customs, Katya was feeling so tired and nauseated she wanted to scream. Now she was nearly in her second trimester the vomiting was settling but her extreme state of nervousness was a volatile mix for her delicateconstitution.
It had been three months since she'd seen him, three months since she'd done the single most irresponsible thing she had ever done. And they had parted badly. And she was carrying his baby.
Being greeted by flowers did not improve her mood.
'I said strictly business.'
She glared at him, hands on her hips, staring at the massive bouquet of red roses. She could smell their delicate fragrance wafting towards her and pressed her hands harder into the bone and flesh of her hips to stop herself reaching for them.
People jostled past and around them at the busy arrivals gate of Leonardo Da Vinci Airport, eager to greet loved ones. The two of them stood out in the crush, the only two people keeping their distance despite the press of bodies around them. They did not embrace. They did not cry.
Count Benedetto Medici chuckled and feigned a wounded look. Just like he remembered her. Blunt. To the point. Her accented English making the words even more clipped. Someone who didn't know her might even describe her as unemotional. But he knew intimately that under the surface Katya Petrova was an intensely passionate woman. 'Cam,' he cajoled.
'Do not darling me,' Katya said briskly, ignoring the way his voice stroked heat across her skin. That's what had got her into this mess in the first place. Memories of their last night together played like a film in her head. Unfortunately time, distance and weeks of throwing up had not immunised her against his charms or dulled her reaction to the sexy purring quality of his very deep, very male voice.
'But I bought them for you as a welcome-to-my-country gift.'
Katya sniffed as his beguiling smile did funny things to her equilibrium. 'I amhere to work, Ben. There is no need for gifts.'
'They are too beautiful to throw away,' he said softly, thrusting them towards her again.
Katya could smell the crimson blooms and she was, oh, so tempted. But there was a principle here. Flowers were for lovers and they weren't. Once did not count. Ben was a rich, attractive manaristocracy for heaven's sakeused to getting his own way. But she wasn't here to be a rich man's darling. That was her mother's specialty.
She was here on a fact-finding mission. Just because she couldn't look after this baby, it didn't mean she was just going to let anybody do it. Ben may be the father but she knew so little about him. Yes, he could obviously provide for it. But could he give it the other things?
The intangibles. His love. His time. His devotion. His stories. His commitment. Katya knew too well what it was like, growing up without any of those things. She also knew what it was like growing up without a father. Maybe things would have been different if she had. Maybe not. But she wanted the very best for this baby and next to a mother, surely that had to be the father? And that was what she was there to find out.
She looked around her at the now thinning crowd and spotted a young man rocking on his feet, anxiously scanning the arrivals corridor. 'Ask him who he's waiting for,' she said, turning back to Ben.
Ben chuckled again. But he did as she asked. There was a brief exchange between the two men. 'His fiancée,' Ben relayed.
Katya smiled. 'Perfect. She'll love them,' she said, and then strode forward, dragging her single suitcase behind her on its wheels, following the exit signs.
Ben threw Katya's medium-sized bag, which looked like it had seen better days, into the boot of his Alfa.
'This is all you brought?' he asked.
Ben shrugged. 'Most women I know need a bag this size just for their make-up.'
Katya found herself strangely irritated by his apparent knowledge of women and their luggage. 'I am not most women.'
Amen to that. Ben shut the lid down and gave the metal an affectionate tap. He glanced up to see her staring at the vehicle. 'What?' he asked warily.
She shrugged. 'I thought you'd drive a Ferrari or a Lamborghini.'
He smiled. 'Disappointed?'
Of course. Katya was truly the only woman he'd ever known who had been completely unimpressed with his title or his status. In fact, it had been obvious right from the start that she had resented his wealth. Had judged him harshly on the playboy image he projected through her jaded working-class eyes.
And the truth was, he had owned his share of status symbols, including a very sleek red Ferrari, but that had been in another life. Back when an indulgent, lavish lifestyle had been all he had known. But a lot of water had flowed under the bridge since then. And it bothered him that she found him wanting because of his bank account.
'Maybe you don't know me as well as you think,' he said, walking towards her and opening her door.
Katya raised an eyebrow. His entire time at MedSurg he'd been the epitome of a rich, spoiled playboy. The only time she had seen anything different had been the night they had made love. The night he'd received word of his brother's death.
That night she had seen a vulnerability, a glimpse of the man beneath the façade. All his layers had been stripped away by the shocking news and he'd been raw, totally open. The playboy had gone and the man had emerged. And she'd given him her virginity without a second thought. And that was the man she needed to be the father of her child.
'Maybe I don't,' she conceded.
Ben felt her warm breath on his cheek and was surprised by her concession. This was not the Katya he remembered. The sassy Katya. The Katya who gave him a hard time. The Katya who didn't give him an inch. But he had seen this Katya once before. The night she had offered him comfort and solace.
They were close now and visions of that night swamped him. He could smell her familiar scent. Cinnamon, just as he remembered, and he had a sudden urge to see if she would taste as he remembered, too. Her open-necked shirt afforded him a view of pale skin and prominent collar-bone and he suddenly wanted to lean in and nuzzle along the hard ridge and the hollow above.
Katya looked into his slumberous brown eyes and could see the passion flaring to life in their smouldering depths. Read exactly what he was thinking. God knew, she was thinking it herself. She could feel herself sway, hear her breath roughen, hear his follow suit.
A horn blared behind them, echoing around the cold cement corners of the car park, and they both froze. Katya's heart hammered as she pulled herself back from the brink. She was not here to pick up where they left off! She remembered how offhand he'd been the morning after, how confused she'd been by his casual job offer, like he'd just thrown money on her bedside table, and her determination to act like it hadn't been a big deal. She struggled to find that miraculous act again now.
'How long will it take to get to Ravello?' she asked as she slipped into the passenger seat on shaky legs.
'We are staying in Positano tonight,' he said when he joined her, 'in my mother's villa.'
He buckled up, noticing her body, which she'd been holding quite erect anyway, as if the luxury of the leather seats would taint her working-class skin, stiffen further.
'This was not part of the plan,' she said.
'My mother wishes to welcome you to Italy. She is preparing a feast in your honour. Relax,' he teased, and reached across to squeeze her denim-clad knee.
Katya glared at him and then at his hand, picked it up off her knee and put it back on the gear lever. 'That is not necessary.'
'My mother insists.' He shrugged. 'She will be very disappointed if we don't stop. We will go to Ravello in the morning. It is only half an hour, depending on traffic'
He saw the grim set to her mouth and knew from experience she was itching to say more. He'd seen that glitter in her eyes before and had been the recipient of the caustic dialogue that usually followed. But he could also tell that she didn't want to offend his mother.
'Your mother knows we are work colleagues only, da? I trust we will have separate rooms?'
Ben couldn't help himself, he roared with laughter. His mother was an old-fashioned woman, had raised them with traditional values. She thought premarital sex was a sin. 'You have nothing to fear there, Katya.'
'Good,' said Katya, and turned to gaze out of her window.
Ben concentrated on his driving, navigating his way out of Rome easily. He had spent a lot of his years in the capital and knew it well. The Medici family had residences in Rome and Florence and he had split his formative years between the two.
He took the autostrada exit to Naples. His family had always wintered on the Amalfi coast, his mother preferring the gentler climate of southern Italy, and the Positano villa had been her permanent home for five years now. For many years it had been his favourite place in all of Italy but too much had happened there and when he had left a decade ago he had sworn to never return. But the Lucia Clinic was there. His duty was there.
He glanced at Katya's profile. She appeared to be engrossed in the scenery and he took the opportunity to study her. She was dressed casually in hipster jeans. They were snug-fitting rather than tight, emphasising her slender thighs. Her white, short-sleeved shirt looked cool, the top few buttons undone, revealing a hint of cleavage.
Funny he'd seen her almost every day for a year and yet had rarely seen her in civvies. In his mind, when he pictured her, which he did a little too often for his own sanity, it was as she'd been that last night. Gloriously naked, her body slick with sweat, her blue eyes wide and dazed with passion. He remembered the bite of her nails into his buttocks, the nip of her teeth into his shoulder, the gasps of pleasure from her mouth.
He dragged himself back from the fantasy with difficulty. Despite the evidence of his eyes, he couldn't quite believe that she was actually sitting here beside him.
To say he'd been surprised to take her call a few weeks ago was an understatement. After the way they'd parted, the way he'd acted after such an amazing night, it had hardly been his brightest moment.
Is that job offer still open? she had asked. And he had been so delighted to hear her accented English, so relieved that she was still talking to him after his morning-after bungle, that he'd forgotten what a shrew she could be and had said, Of course. In honesty, he'd missed her. Missed her frankness. Her cute accent. Her aloofness. She was the only woman he'd ever met who could turn him on through pure indifference.
In typical Katya fashion, she hadn't gone into detail about her reasons on the phone. She hadn't explained why she was now doing the very thing she'd told him she wouldn't. I'd rather drink bad vodka, that's what she'd told him that last morning. She had just lectured him about what her coming to Italy did and didn't mean. A work thing, she had said. No taking up where they had left off.
So why had she changed her mind? He had to admit to being a little more than curious. Perhaps she needed the money for some reason? The Lucia Clinic certainly paid its staff well. MedSurg, on the other hand, the charitable organisation they had both been employed by, while incredible to work for, did not.
But, then, no one joined its ranks to get rich. MedSurg involved a higher ideal. And Katya had been committed to staying on with themfor ever, she had said that awful morning. So something had come up to change her mind.
Wanting to change direction, she had told him on the phone. But he knew that was a lie. What were the words she had used when she'd first realised his family owned the world-renowned Clinic? A place where rich vain people desperately trying to hold onto their youth were pandered to. Or words to that effect anyway. He smiled to himself. Would she tell him if he asked?
'Shouldn't you be watching the road?' Katya said, turning away from the window to pierce him with a disapproving glare.
Hmm. Maybe not.
Not even as the dense housing of Rome fell away and Italian countryside surrounded them could Katya ignore the weight of his stare. She'd been hyper-aware of him the minute she had spotted him, half-hidden behind the largest bouquet she had ever seen. She had hoped that their time apart would have put her attraction into perspective but, if anything, it seemed to be stronger.