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Not for the first time in the last several weeks, Lauren Bradley wondered where she should draw the line between becoming the bold, independent woman she'd always wished she could be and behaving like a shameless, demanding radical. Words like licentious, brazen and embarrassment trickled through her mind with increasing frequency as she walked that blurry border.
Unsurprisingly, when those hurtful words echoed in her head, they were always pronounced in her mother's thin, distressed voice.
Flicking one long, brunette braid over her shoulder, Lauren silently told her absent mother to pipe down while she regarded the woman behind the counter of this exclusive hotel salon. The woman had just given Lauren the most excruciatingly polite brush-off and the habits of a lifetime urged Lauren to slink away in quiet disgrace.
But her heart was beating for two these days, knocking hard against the wall of her breastbone and bouncing back on a spine that had to harden to contain it.
Dare I? she wondered with a shiver of apprehension.
Oh, she knew she appeared to be just one more hick tourist come to New York looking for a posh hairstyle to take home as a souvenir, but this meant so much more to her than that. Lauren stood on the threshold of taking control of her life in a way she'd never imagined, but to do so meant shoving past the old Lauren who always smilingly took a backseat to everyone. If she didn't dig deep and find her true spirit right now she might as well collect her luggage from upstairs and retreat to the empty rooms of her grandmother's mansion where she could raise her baby with all the fear of drawing attention its mother had suffered most of her life.
No. Lauren locked her knee, surreptitiously putting her foot down.
She allowed the salon receptionist to finish the call she'd used to try to dismiss her. Ingrained manners were a pain that way. Besides, Lauren needed the extra seconds to gather her courage and manufacture a gracious smile for the woman who gave her a strained Still here? smile as she hung up.
"I believe there's been a miscommunication," Lauren said with the most warmly modulated yet implacable tone she could muster. "I'm attending the Donatelli Charity Ball this evening."
The woman, a little younger than Lauren's nearly twenty-five, widened her eyelash extensions with a fraction of respect. Exactly. Paolo Donatelli was a man who made every woman stand taller and suck in her stomach.
A zing of empowerment swept through Lauren. She was name-dropping, sure, but she'd never before had the gall to try it. Over her mother's gasp of horror, she heard her grandmother say, Good girl! Clenching her fingers on the strap of her carryall purse, Lauren added daringly, "You're certain you have nothing for Bradley? Mrs. Ryan Bradley?"
Her mother would have a stroke over such audacity, but Lauren stood her ground, pronouncing the name with delicate precision because, honestly, what was the use in being Mrs. Bradley if she shrank from all it afforded her?
"Mrs. Bradley " The salon hostess searched her book while her plucked brows came together in concern. "It sounds familiar"
A stiletto-thin man appeared from behind the privacy wall of translucent bricks. Groomed to perfection right down to his buffed fingernails, he greeted Lauren with the warmth of an old friend, even though she'd never seen him before in her life.
"Mrs. Bradley, of course we have time for you. So good to see you out during what must be a very difficult time. May I express on behalf of myself, my staff, and in fact our entire country, how sincerely sorry we are for your loss. Captain Bradley was a true hero. If there is anything we can do to ease your pain and make up for his sacrifice, we are at your service."
Now Lauren did feel like the most conscienceless snake oil salesman in the world, allowing the man to sweep her into the interior of the salon, minions scampering before him to remove traces of previous clients.
Guilt rose to tense her shoulders; there was still time to go back. All she had to do was turn and leave. People would stare but she could be gone in a matter of seconds.
She swallowed and allowed confident hands to seat her. The elastic hoops were peeled off her two thick braids and then her new BFF was fanning his hands through her hair, picking up the strands that fell to her waist.
"This is your natural color, isn't it? What a treasure. Your husband must have adored this mane."
Lauren had thought he had adored her. Don't ever cut it. Promise me, he'd said a thousand times. Everyone in her life had encouraged her to keep her hair long and Lauren, always the good girl, had complied.
"You're not going to hide it by putting it up? What are you wearing tonight?" He weighed the kinked strands.
"I have a vintage Lanvin-Castillo. And no, I don't want my hair up. I want you to cut it. Off." New life. New Lauren.
He sucked in a gasp, meeting her gaze in the mirror with disbelief that slowly dawned into awe. "My dear, if I were straight, I would ask you to marry me."
Lauren smiled as if men fell for her all the time, which was the furthest thing from the truth. "Sir, if I was the least bit interested in marrying again, I'd say yes."
Three hours later Enrique was the best friend Lauren had never had. He insisted on coming to her room with one of the stylists from his salon where they helped her dress and put finishing touches on her hair, nails and makeup.
"I cannot wait to tell people I dressed Frances Hammond's granddaughter. Look at you! It's like it was made for you."
Considering it was the last dress made for her grandmother and that she'd also been three months' pregnant at the time, it didn't surprise Lauren that it fit so well. The boned bodice that flattened her tender breasts was severely uncomfortable, but it did wonders for her usually modest bosom. She hid her wince and stepped into the matching satin heels. They weren't as tall as current fashion dictated, but they were stitched to match the amethyst embroidery on the white silk of the dress and positively adorable.
Enrique carefully draped the dark violet stole over her bare shoulders, shaking his head with wonder. "Look at this detailing. What a time to be alive." He set familiar hands on her hips, taking in the pink and blue pastes studding the elaborate chenille and floss that ended at her waistline. He didn't seem to notice she was disguising a pregnancy behind the structure of the dress.
Good. The whole purpose of this exercise was to let the father of her baby know about his child's existence before the rest of the world found out.
As Lauren absorbed the reality that she would be seeing Paolo again, a flood of excitement sent a subtle rush of heat and color under her skin. She saw it happen in the full-length mirror as she turned for a final look. It made her squirm internally with chagrin that she couldn't stop the reaction. Always, always she reacted to that man and it was so wrong. Her thoughts of him almost tipped into memories of their night in Charleston and the sting in her cheeks ached with shame.
She tried forcing herself back into the cone of denial she'd occupied since The Morning After, but it was tighter than this dress. The lovemaking shouldn't have happened, but it had. There were consequences. She had to face them.
Which meant facing Paolo.
To combat her reaction at the prospect of seeing him, she took a hard look at her appearance. Where her grandmother had been blond elegance, Lauren was dark with elfin features accentuated by her new hair.
What would Paolo think? Of the hair and the news?
She never knew what to expect from him. The first time she'd met him, at a bar here in New York five years ago, he'd been warm and admiring. The second time, at her wedding to Ryan half a year later, things had gone so wrong it had been nothing but chilly brush-offs after that. She'd been convinced he hated her and, after his nasty set-down at Ryan's thirtieth birthday party, she had returned his antipathy. When Ryan had disappeared three months ago, however, she'd made one despairing call from Charleston and Paolo had materialized before her. He'd revealed an incredibly tender side when he'd broken the news about Ryan with sincere regret, so protective of her he had whisked her to the privacy of his nearby penthouse.
Where he had made love to her with unexpected and abject passion.
So would he regard this baby as exciting and wonderful? Or would he be the iceman about it? Would he blame her? Or see her as something he wanted?
Oh God, was that what she was doing? Trying to make herself into something that could fit into his world? Suddenly she saw herself as she was: a rube playing dress-up, sidling out of her element with the intention of taking life by storm without possessing the capacity to actually do it. Her confidence plunged.
"Don't look so terrified," Enrique scolded. "You have every reason to hold your head high."
Lauren couldn't think of one person who would agree. Not her mother, certainly not her mother-in-law. Paolo hadn't said a word to her since. That didn't bode well.
Her stomach rolled with anxious fear and she automatically lifted a protective hand to her abdomen.
Enrique's gaze followed.
Too revealing. She was falling apart.
"I haven't eaten," she offered, which was true. The baby deserved better. She ought to take off this costume and stay here for a proper meal and an early night.
"They'll have a buffet at the ball, but will this tide you over?" Enrique's assistant offered a candy from a roll of them.
Lauren stared with bemusement at that particular candy appearing before her at this particular instance. With a tremulous smile, she took one. As the O-shape and scorched-caramel flavor landed on her tongue, Mamie's spirit came into the room.
Do it, cherie. Take a chance. Live your life.
Lauren took a deep breath and her flagging confidence rallied. She couldn't let Mamie down.
She secured the antique earrings weighing down her lobes then adjusted her grandmother's diamonds across her collarbone and, with all the terrified dignity of Marie Antoinette approaching the guillotine, made her way to the Grand Ballroom.
Paolo Donatelli surveyed the charity benefit his mother had begun hosting on an annual basis when his father had still been alive. Whichever country they happened to occupy in December became the location of a White Tie Ball complete with full orchestra, champagne fountains and a midnight supper. The Donatellis could then retreat to Italy for a family Christmas confident they'd done their duty by the local economy, their position in society, and the cause du jour.
His mother rarely left home in winter these days, but Paolo strove to do her credit by continuing the tradition abroad. In his hypercritical opinion, he'd pulled off one of the most successful events to date. If there was a flaw, it was the lack of a proper wife to be his hostess, not that anyone would dare say so. If his cousin Vittorio had an opinion on the subject, he wisely kept it to himself. And Paolo was working on repairing that deficiency. Isabella Nutini was his companion tonight and she was nothing if not proper.
He nodded an acknowledgment when Isabella excused herself to the powder room, thinking she could easily repair more than one blemish in his life. She was Italian, not one of these mixed-breed Americans as his first wife had been. Isabella had been raised Catholic and so treated marriage with the respect it deserved. She seemed to have a grasp on concepts such as loyalty and duty to familysomething he saw in very few people these days, man or woman.
Best of all, aside from the requisite level of physical attraction and a modicum of intellectual interest, he felt little for her. He was a man of very deep emotions and controlling them was a daily struggle. Best to have a wife who wouldn't put him through an emotional wringer. As long as she provided him the children he required and did not shame him before his family, Isabella was ideal.
"Your date left you and now so will I," Vittorio said with cheerful insolence. "Excuse me, cousin, while I seduce my future wife."
Italian heritage and male curiosity demanded Paolo catch a glimpse of the female that had drawn another man's interest. He turned his head and
A pendulum of suppressed sexual need that he'd pushed far into his subconscious swung through him and exploded, nearly bringing him to his knees in a rush of heat and primitive hunger. Paolo slapped his hand onto the ruffled front of Vittorio's shirt, freezing him in place. Iron hardened in his arm while his gaze swept like a raptor, ensuring no one else dared approach her before he locked onto her again and took in the vision of her.
She'd gained back a few pounds, but her cheekbones still stood out under eyes that were wide and overwhelmed as she searched the crowd. Despite her height, she projected an intrinsic vulnerability that struck him the way it had when he'd entered the house of Ryan Bradley's family in Charleston. His protective instincts rose like hackles, but she wasn't nearly as helpless as she appeared. Lauren Bradley knew how to take care of herself. Like most women, she turned on the damsel-in-distress act to get what she wanted.
Ryan has disappeared, Paolo. No one will tell me anything. Please help me.
She had known how to get right at his heart, plucking at his deep allegiance to his friend despite playing them off against each other for years. With one phone message, she'd invited him onto an emotional roller coaster that had taken him weeks to recover from. A man in his position couldn't afford inner turmoil. She ought to understand and respect that, but she was too self-involved.
Dio! She was beautiful, though. He vaguely took in a dress of white silk swirled with pearlescent design. A slash of dark purple was tangled over creamy shoulders and pale arms, but his gaze ate up the other details: the swell of her pale breasts, the hourglass shape nipped at the waist and flared to wide hips that had cradled his like they'd been made to lock together the way they had. Her neck had been a slender arch under his rapacious mouth, her ears so sensitive his breath on them had made her quiver. And those lips, those plump, edible lips had roamed his chest and abdomen and
"Are you forgetting you brought a date, Paolo?" Vittorio's voice held the same amused mockery Paolo had heard all too often from family after his marriage had fallen apart. How could you not have suspected it wasn't yours?
Lauren Bradley had the ability to make him miss certain things and overlook the rest. Shame rose to burn his cheeks, mixed with embarrassment and anger. She'd seduced him into another dishonorable position and he would never forgive her for it.
"That's Mrs. Bradley. Off-limits. To everyone," he ground out, finally dropping the hand that had warded off his cousin. "Scusa," he added from between clenched teeth, loathe to approach her, but what choice did he have?
Vittorio flicked him a speculative glance. Paolo ignored it, admitting to nothing. Everyone had wanted to know what had happened when he had stolen Lauren from the Bradley household and taken her to his penthouse on top of the Do-natelli Bank Tower in Charleston.
Nothing, he'd lied.