Read an Excerpt
"Who is the father of your baby, Laura?"
Holding her six-month-old baby on her hip, Laura Parker had been smiling with pride and pleasure across her family's two-hundred-year-old farmhouse, lit with swaying lights and filled with neighbors and friends for her sister's evening wedding reception. Now, pushing up her black-rimmed glasses, Laura faced her younger sister with a sinking feeling in her heart.
Who is the father of your baby?
People rarely asked that question anymore, since Laura always refused to answer. She'd started to hope the scandal might be over.
"Will you ever tell?" Becky's face was unhappy beneath her veil. At nineteen, her sister was an idealistic new bride with romantic dreams of right and wrong. "Robby deserves a father."
Trying to control the anguish in her heart, Laura kissed her son's dark hair, so soft, and smelling of baby shampoo. She said in a low voice, "We've talked about this."
"Who is he?" her sister cried. "Are you ashamed of him? Why won't you tell?"
"Becky!" Laura glanced uneasily at the reception guests around them. "I told you I don't " She took a deep breath. "I don't know who he is."
Her sister stared at her tearfully. "You're lying. There's no way you'd sleep around like that. You're the one who convinced me to wait for true love!"
The people closest to them had stopped pretending to talk, and were now openly eavesdropping. Family and friends were packed into the farmhouse's warren of rooms, walking across creaking floors, having conversations beneath the low ceilings. Neighbors sat on folding chairs along the walls, holding paper plates of food in their laps. And probably listening. Laura held her baby closer. "Becky, please," she whispered.
"He deserted you. And it's not fair!"
"Becky," their mother said suddenly from behind them, "I don't think you've met your great-aunt Gertrude. She's traveled all the way from England. Won't you come and greet her?" Smiling, Ruth Parker reached for her grandson in Laura's arms. "She'll want to meet Robby, too."
"Thankyou," Laura whispered soundlessly to her mother. Ruth answered with a loving smile and a wink, then drew her younger daughter and baby grandson away. Laura watched them go, love choking her. Ruth was wearing her nicest Sunday dress and bright coral lipstick, but her hair had grown gray and her body slightly stooped. The past year had left even her strong mother more frail.
The lump in Laura's throat felt razor-sharp as she stood alone in the crowded room. She'd thought she'd put the scandal of her pregnancy behind her, after she'd returned to her northern New Hampshire village pregnant, with no job and no answers. But would her family ever get over it? Would she?
Three weeks after she'd left Rio de Janeiro, she'd been shocked to discover she was pregnant. Her burly, overprotective father had demanded to know the name of the man. Laura had been afraid he might go after Gabriel Santos with an ultimatumor worse, a shotgun. So she'd lied and said she had no idea who her baby's father might be. She'd described her time in Rio as one gigantic shagfest, when the truth was that she'd had only one lover her whole life. And even that had been for a single night.
One precious night
I need you, Laura. She still felt the violence of her boss's embrace as he'd pushed her back against his desk, sweeping aside paperwork and crashing the computer to the floor. After more than a year, she could still feel the heat of his body against hers, the feel of his lips against her neck, his hot brutal kisses against her skin. The memory of the way Gabriel Santos had ruthlessly taken her virginity still invaded her dreams every night.
And the memory of the aftermath still left a shotgun blast in her heart. The morning after he'd seduced her, she'd tearfully told him she felt she had no choice but to quit her job. He'd just shrugged. "Good luck," he said. "I hope you find what you're looking for."
That was all he gave her, after five years of her love and devoted service.
She'd loved her playboy boss, stupidly and without hope. It had been fifteen months since she'd last seen Gabriel's face, but she could not forget it, no matter how hard she tried. How could she, when every day she saw those same dark eyes in her child's face?
Her tears in the little white clapboard church an hour ago hadn't just been from happiness for Becky. Laura had once loved a man with all her heart, but he hadn't loved her back. And as the cold February wind whipped through their northern valley, there were still times she imagined she could hear his dark, deep voice speaking to her, only to her.
Like now. The memory of his low, accented voice seemed so real. The sound ripped through her body, through her heart, as if he were right beside her, whispering against her skin.
His voice felt really close that time. Really close.
Laura's hands shook as she set down her glass of cheap champagne. Lack of sleep and a surfeit of dreams were causing her to hallucinate. Had to be. It couldn't be.
With a deep breath, she turned.
Gabriel Santos stood before her. In the middle of her family's crowded living room, he towered over other men in every way, even more darkly handsome than she remembered. But it wasn't just his chiseled jawline or his expensive Italian suit that made him stand out. It wasn't just his height or the strength of his broad shoulders.
It was the ruthless intensity of his black eyes. A tremble went through her.
"Gabriel ?" she whispered.
His sensual lips curved. "Hello, Laura."
She swallowed, pressing her nails into her palms, willing herself to wake up from this nightmare from this incredible dream. "You can't be here," she whispered. "As in here."
"And yet I am," he said. "Laura."
She shivered at the sound of her name on his lips. It didn't seem right that he could be here, in her family's living room, surrounded by friends and family eating potluck.
At thirty-eight, Gabriel Santos owned a vast international conglomerate that bought and shipped steel and timber across the world. His life was filled with one passionate, single-minded pursuit after another. Business. Adrenaline-tinged sports. Beautiful women. Laura's lips turned downward. Beautiful women most of all.
So what was he doing here? What could he possibly have come for unless
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her mother disappearing down the hall with her baby.
Trying to stop her hands from shaking, Laura folded her arms around the waist of her hand-sewn bridesmaid's dress. So Gabriel had come to Greenhill Farm. It didn't exactly require a crack team unit to find her here. Parkers had lived here for two hundred years. It didn't mean he knew about Robby. It didn't. He couldn't.
Gabriel lifted a dark eyebrow. "Are you glad to see me?"
"Of course I'm not glad." She bit out the words. "If you recall, I'm no longer your secretary. So if you've come five thousand miles because you need me to go back to Rio and sew a button or make your coffee"
"No." His eyes glittered at her. "That's not why I've come." He slowly looked around the house, which was decorated with strings of pink lights and red paper hearts along the walls, and candles above the fire in the old stone fireplace. "What's going on here?"
"A wedding reception."
He blinked, then came closer to her, the wooden boards creaking beneath his feet. Laura's eyes widened as the shadows of firelight shifted across the hard angles of his face. He was so handsome, she thought in bewildered wonder. She'd forgotten how handsome. Her dreams hadn't done him justice. She could see why so many women chased after him all over the world and why he was the despair of them all.
"And just who" his black eyes narrowed into a glower "is the bride?"
She was bewildered at the sudden harshness of his tone. "My little sister. Becky."
"Ah." His shoulders relaxed imperceptibly. Then he frowned. "Becky? She's not much more than a child."
"Tell me about it." Laura looked down at her bridesmaid's dress. In the gleam of the fire and pink lights swaying above, the pale pink gown appeared almost white. She looked up suddenly. "Did you think it was me?"
Their eyes locked in the crowded room. "E claro" Gabriel said quietly. "Of course I thought it was you."
The idea of her having the time or the interest to date, let alone marry, some other man made her choke back a laugh. She smoothed her bridesmaid's gown with trembling hands. "No."
"So there is no one important in your life right now?" he asked, in a casual tone belied by way he held his body in absolute stillness.
There was someone important in her life. She just had to get Gabriel out of here before he saw Robby. "You have no right to ask."
"Sim." He paused. "But you're not wearing a ring."
"Fine." Laura's voice was painfully quiet as she looked down at her feet. "I'm not married."
She didn't have to ask if Gabriel was married. She already knew the answer. How many times had he told her he would never, ever take a wife?
I'm not made for love, querida. I'll never have a little housewife cooking my dinner in a snug house every night as I read books to our children.
Gabriel moved closer, almost touching her. She was dimly aware of people whispering around them, wondering who this handsome, well-dressed stranger might be. She knew she should tell him to leave, but she was caught in the power of his body so close to hers. Her gaze fell on his thick wrists beneath sharply tailored shirt cuffs, and she trembled. She remembered the feel of that strong body on hers, the stroke of his fingertips
Against her will, her eyes lifted, tracing up his muscular body, past his broad shoulders and wide neck to his brutally handsome face. In the flickering shadows, she saw the dark scruff along his jaw, the scar across his temple from a childhood car accident. She saw the man she'd wanted forever and had never stopped wanting.
His eyes burned into her, and memories poured through her. She felt vulnerable, almost powerless beneath the dark fire of his glance.
"It's good to see you again," he said in a low voice. He smiled, and the masculine beauty of his face took
her breath away. Their fifteen months apart had made him only more handsome. While she
She hadn't seen the inside of a beauty salon for a year. Her hair hadn't been cut for ages, and her only makeup was lipstick in an unflattering pink shade that she'd worn at Becky's insistence. Her dowdy dishwater-blonde hair had been hurriedly pulled back in a French knot before the ceremony, but now fell about her shoulders in messy tendrils, pulled out by Robby's chubby fists.
Even as a girl Laura had always tended to put herself last, but since she became the single mother of a baby, she wasn't even on the list. Taking a shower and shoving her hair back into a ponytail was all she could manage most days. And she still hadn't managed to take off all the extra weight from her pregnancy. Nervously, she pushed up her black-framed glasses. "Why are you staring at me?"
"You're even more beautiful than I remembered."
Her cheeks went hot beneath his gaze. "Now I know you're lying."
"It's true." His dark eyes seared her. He wasn't looking at her as if he thought she were plain. In fact, he was looking down at her as if he
He turned away, and she exhaled.
"So this is Becky's wedding reception?" He glanced around the room with something like disapproval on his face.
Laura thought their home looked nice, even romantic for a country-style winter wedding. They'd scrubbed it scrupulously clean, tidied away all the usual clutter, and decorated their hearts out. But as she followed his gaze, she suddenly saw how shabby it all was.
Laura had been proud of how much she'd been able to accomplish for her sister on almost no budget. Flowers had been too expensive because of Valentine's Day, so Laura had gone to the nearest craft store and cut out large hearts of red tissue paper, festooning them on their walls with red and pink balloons and streamers. She'd decorated the house in the middle of the night, as she'd waited for the cake to cool. For the reception dinner, their mother had made her famous roast chickens and their friends and neighbors had brought casseroles and salads for a buffet-style potluck. Laura had made her sister's wedding cake herself, using instructions from an old 1930s family cookbook.
She'd been tired but so happy when she'd fallen into bed at dawn. But now, beneath Gabriel's eyes, the decorations no longer seemed beautiful. She saw how flimsy it all was, how shabby a send-off for her second-youngest sister. Becky had seemed delighted when she saw the decorations and slightly tilted wedding cake that morning. But what else could she have done, knowing how hard her family had tried to give her a nice wedding when there was never a dime to spare?
As if he could read her mind, Gabriel looked at her. "Do you need money, Laura?"
Laura's cheeks went hot. "No," she lied. "We're fine."
He looked around the room again, at the paper plates with the potluck dinner, at her homemade gown, clearly not believing her. He set his jaw. "I'm just surprised your father couldn't do better for Becky. Even if money is tight."
Laura folded her arms, feeling ice in her heart. "He couldn't," she whispered. "My father died four months ago."
She heard Gabriel's intake of breath. "What?"
"He had a heart attack during harvest. We didn't find him on his tractor until later. When he didn't come home for dinner."
"Oh, Laura." Gabriel took her hand in his own. "I'm sorry."
She felt his sympathy, felt his concern. And she felt the rough warmth of his palm against her ownthe touch she'd craved for the past year and all the five years before. Her fingers curled over his as longing blistered her soul.
With an intake of breath she ripped her hand away.
"Thank you," she said, blinking back tears. She'd thought she was done grieving for her father, but she'd spent most of the day with a lump in her throat, watching her uncle walk Becky down the aisle, seeing her mother alone in the pew with tears streaking her powdered face. Laura's father should have been here. "It's been a long winter. Everything fell apart without him. We're just a small farm and always run so lean, one year to the next. With my dad gone, the bank tried to refuse to extend the loan or give us anything more for spring planting."
Gabriel's eyes narrowed. "What?"