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Gina St. Sebastian forced a smile to hide her gritted teeth. "Good Lord, you're stubborn, Jack."
The irate male standing before her snapped his sun-bleached brows together. Ambassador John Harris Mason III was tanned, tawny-haired and a trim, athletic six-one. He was also used to being in charge. The fact that he couldn't control Gina or the situation they now found themselves in irritated him no end.
"You're pregnant with my child, dammit. Yet you refuse to even discuss marriage."
"Oh, for ! Trumpet the news to the whole world, why don't you?"
Scowling, Gina craned her neck to peer around the bank of gardenias shielding her and Jack from the other guests in the Terrace Room of New York City's venerable Plaza Hotel. With its exquisitely restored Italian Renaissance ceiling and crystal chandeliers modeled after those in the Palace of Versailles, it made a fabulous venue for a wedding.
A wedding put together on extremely short notice! They'd had less than two weeks to pull it off. The groom's billions had eased the time crunch considerably, as had the miracle worker Dev Hunter employed as his executive assistant. Gina had done all the planning, though, and she would not allow the man she'd spent one wild weekend with to disrupt her sister's wedding day.
Luckily no one seemed to have heard his caustic comment. The band was currently pulsing out the last bars of a lively merengue. Sarah and Dev were on the dance floor, along with the St. Sebastians' longtime housekeeper, Maria, and most of the guests invited to the elegant affair.
Gina's glance shot from the dancers to the lace-clad woman sitting ramrod-straight in her chair, hands crossed on the ebony head of her cane. The duchess was out of earshot, too, thank God! Hearing her younger granddaughter's pregnancy broadcast to the world at large wouldn't have fit with her notions of proper behavior.
Relieved, Gina swung back to Jack. "I won't have you spoil my sister's wedding with another argument. Please lower your voice."
He took the hint and cranked down the decibels, if not his temper. "We haven't had ten minutes alone to talk about this since you got back from Switzerland."
As if she needed the reminder! She'd flown to Switzerland exactly one day after she'd peed on a purple stick and felt her world come crashing down around her. She'd had to get away from L.A., had to breathe in the sharp, clean air of the snow-capped Alps surrounding Lake Lucerne while trying to decide what to do. After a day and a night of painful soul-searching, she'd walked into one of Lucerne's ultramodern clinics. Ten minutes later, she'd turned around and walked out again. But not before making two near-hysterical calls. The first was to Sarahher sister, her protector, her dearest friend. The second, unfortunately, was to the handsome, charismatic and thoroughly annoying diplomat now confronting her.
By the time Sarah had made the frantic dash from Paris in response to her sister's call, Gina's jagged nerves had smoothed a little. Her hard-won poise shattered once again, however, when Jack Mason showed up on the scene. She hadn't expected him to jump a plane, much less express such fierce satisfaction over her decision to have their child.
Actually, the decision had surprised Gina as much as it had Jack. She was the flighty, irresponsible sister. The good-time girl, always up for a weekend skiing in Biarritz or a sail through the blue-green waters of the Caribbean. Raised by their grandmother, she and Sarah had been given the education and sophisticated lifestyle the duchess insisted was their birthright. Only recently had the sisters learned how deeply Grandmama had gone into debt to provide that lifestyle. Since then, Gina had made a determined effort to support herself. A good number of efforts, actually. Sadly, none of the careers she'd dabbled in had held her mercurial interest for very long.
Modeling had turned out to be a drag. All those hot lights and temperamental photographers snapping orders like constipated drill sergeants. Escorting small, select tour groups to the dazzling capitals of Europe was even more of a bore. How in the world could she have imagined she'd want to make a career of chasing down lost luggage or shuffling room assignments to placate a whiny guest who didn't like the view in hers?
Gina had even tried to translate her brief sojourn at Italy's famed cooking school, the Academia Barilla, into a career as a catering chef. That misguided attempt had barely lasted a week. But when her exasperated boss booted her out of the kitchen and into the front office, she'd discovered her apparently one real talent. She was far better at planning parties than cooking for them. Especially when clients walked in waving a checkbook and orders to pull out all the stops for their big event.
She was so good, in fact, that she intended to support herself and her child by coordinating soirees for the rich and famous. But first she had to convince her baby's father that she neither needed nor wanted the loveless marriage he was offering.
"I appreciate your concern, Jack, but "
The handsome, charismatic ambassador kept his voice down as she'd requested, but looked as though he wanted let loose with both barrels. His shoulders were taut under his hand-tailored tux. Below his neatly trimmed caramel-colored hair, his brown eyes drilled into her.
Gina couldn't help but remember how those eyes had snared hers across a crowded conference room six weeks ago and signaled instant, electric attraction. How his oh-so-skilled mouth had plundered her throat and her breasts and her belly. How.
Oh, for pity's sake! Why remember the heat that had sizzled so hot and fast between them? That spontaneous combustion wouldn't happen again. Not now. Not with everything else that was going on in their lives.
"But," she continued with a forced smile, "you have to agree a wedding reception is hardly the time or place for a discussion like this."
"Name the time," he challenged. "And the place."
"All right! Tomorrow. Twelve noon." Cornered, she named the first place she could think of. "The Boathouse in Central Park."
"I'll be there."
"Fine. We'll get a table in a quiet corner and discuss this like the mature adults we are."
"Like the mature adult at least one of us is."
Gina hid a wince. The biting sarcasm stung, but she had to admit it wasn't far off the mark. The truth was she'd pretty much flitted through life, laughing at its absurdities, always counting on Sarah or Grandmama to bail her out of trouble every time she tumbled into it. All that changed about ten minutes after she peed on that damned stick. Her flitting days were over. It was time to take responsibility for herself and her baby.
Which she would.
"I'll see you tomorrow."
Chin high, she swept around the bank of gardenias.
Jack let her go. She was right. This wasn't the time or the place to hammer some sense into her. Not that he held much hope his calm, rational arguments would penetrate that thick mane of silvery blond curls or spark a glimmer of understanding in those baby-doll blue eyes.
He'd now spent a total of five daysone long, wild weekend and two frustrating days in Switzerlandin Gina St. Sebastian's company. More than enough time to confirm the woman constituted a walking, talking bundle of contradictions. She was jaw-droppingly gorgeous and so sensual she made grown men go weak at the knees, but also friendly and playful as a kitten. Well-educated, yet in many ways naive beyond belief. And almost completely oblivious to the world around her unless it directly impacted her, her sister or her dragon lady of a grandmother.
Pretty much his exact opposite, Jack thought grimly as he tracked her progress across the crowded room. He came from a long line of coolheaded, clear-thinking Virginians who believed their vast wealth brought with it equally great responsibility. Jack's father and grandfather had served as advisors to presidents in times of national crisis. He himself had served in several diplomatic posts before being appointed the State Department's ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism at the ripe old age of thirty-two. As such, he'd traveled to some of the most volatile, violent trouble spots in the world. Recently he'd returned to State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., to translate his hard-won field knowledge into policies and procedures that would improve the security of U.S. diplomatic personnel around the world.
His job demanded long days and long nights. Stress rode on his shoulders like hundred-pound weights. Yet he couldn't remember any issue, any recalcitrant bureaucrat or political pundit, who frustrated him as much as Gina St. Sebastian. She was pregnant with his child, dammit! The child he was determined would carry his name.
The child he and Catherine had tried so hard to have.
The familiar pain knifed into him. The feeling wasn't as vicious as it had once been, but was still ferocious enough to carve up his insides. The lively conversation around him faded. The flower-bedecked room blurred. He could almost see her, almost hear her Boston Brahman accent. Catherinebrilliant, politically savvy Catherinewould have grasped the irony in his present situation at once. She would have.
"You look like you could use a drink, Mason."
With an immense effort of will, Jack blanked the memory of his dead wife and turned to the new groom. Dev Hunter held a crystal tumbler in one hand and offered one to Jack with the other.
"Scotch, straight up," he said dryly. "I saw you talking to Gina and figured you could use it."
"You figured right."
Jack took the tumbler and tipped it toward the man who might soon become his brother-in-law. Not might, he amended grimly as they clinked glasses, would.
"To the St. Sebastian sisters," Hunter said, his gaze shifting to the two women standing with their heads together across the room. "It took some convincing, but I got mine to the altar. Good luck getting yours there."
The Scotch went down with a well-mannered bite. Jack savored its smoky tang and eyed the sisters. They were a study in contrasts. Dark-haired Sarah was impossibly elegant in a clinging ivory gown with feathered clasps at each shoulder and glowed with the incandescent beauty of a bride. Blonde, bubbly Gina was barely six weeks pregnant and showed no signs of a baby bump. She was still slender but more generously endowed than her sister. Her flame-colored, body-hugging, strapless and backless sheath outlined her seductive curves to perfection.
Jack's fingers tightened on the tumbler. Six weeks after the fact and he could still remember how he'd positioned those seductive hips under his. How he'd buried his hands in her silky hair and lost himself in that lush body and those laughing blue eyes.
They'd used protection that weekend. Went through a whole damned box of it, as he recalled. So much for playing the odds.
"I'll get her to the altar," he vowed. "One way or another."
Hunter raised a brow but refrained from comment as his bride smiled and crooked a finger. "I'm being summoned. I'll talk to you again when Sarah and I get back from our honeymoon."
He handed his empty tumbler to a passing waiter and started for his wife, then turned back. "Just for the record, Mason, my money's on Gina. She's got more of the duchess in her than she realizes. And speaking of the duchess "
Jack followed his glance and saw the silver-haired St. Sebastian matriarch thumping her way toward them. A long-sleeve, high-necked dress of ecru lace draped her slight frame. A trio of rings decorated her arthritic fingers. Leaning heavily on her cane with her left hand, Charlotte dismissed her new grandson-in-law with an imperious wave of the right.
"Gina says it's time for you and Sarah to change out of your wedding finery. You only have an hour to get to the airport."
"It's my plane, Charlotte. I don't think it'll leave without us."
"I should hope not." Her ringed fingers flapped again. "Do go away, Devon. I want to talk to Ambassador Mason." Jack didn't consciously go into a brace but he could feel his shoulders squaring as he faced Gina's diminutive, indomitable grandmother.
He knew all about her. He should. He'd dug up the file the State Department had compiled on Charlotte St. Sebastian, once Grand Duchess of the tiny principality of Karlenburgh, when she fled her Communist-overrun country more than five decades ago. After being forced to witness her husband's brutal execution, she'd escaped with the clothes on her back, her infant daughter in her arms and a fortune in jewels hidden inside the baby's teddy bear.
She'd eventually settled in New York City and become an icon of the social and literary scenes. Few of the duchess's wealthy, erudite friends were aware this stiff-spined aristocrat had pawned her jewels over the years to support herself and the two young granddaughters who'd come to live with her after the tragic death of their parents. Jack knew only because Dev Hunter had hinted that he should tread carefully where Charlotte and her granddaughters' financial situation were concerned.
Very carefully. Jack's one previous encounter with the duchess made it clear her reduced circumstances had not diminished either her haughty air or the fierce protectiveness she exhibited toward her granddaughters. That protectiveness blazed in her face now.
"I just spoke with Gina. She says you're still trying to convince her to marry you."
"Yes, I am."
Jack was tempted to fall back on Gina's excuse and suggest that a wedding reception was hardly the proper place for this discussion. The steely look in the duchess's faded blue eyes killed that craven impulse.
"I think the reason would be obvious, ma'am. Your granddaughter's carrying my child. I want to give her and the baby the protection of my name."
The reply came coated with ice. "The St. Sebastian name provides more than enough cachet for my granddaughter and her child."
Well, hell! And he called himself a diplomat! Jack was delivering a mental swift kick when the duchess raised her cane and jabbed the tip into his starched shirt front.
"Tell me one thing, Mr. Ambassador. Do you honestly believe the baby is yours?"
He didn't hesitate. "Yes, ma'am, I do."
The cane took another sharp jab at his sternum.
For two reasons, one of which Jack wasn't about to share. He was still pissed that his father had reacted to the news that he would be a grandfather by hiring a private investigator. With ruthless efficiency the P.I. had dug into every nook and cranny of Gina St. Sebastian's life for the past three months. The report he submitted painted a portrait of a woman who bounced from job to job and man to man with seeming insouciance. Yet despite his best efforts, the detective hadn't been able to turn up a single lover in Gina's recent past except John Harris Mason III.
Furious, Jack had informed his father that he didn't need any damned report. He'd known the baby was his from the moment Gina called from Switzerland, sobbing and nearly incoherent. He now tried to convey that same conviction to the ferocious woman about to skewer him with her cane.
"As I've discovered in our brief time together, Duchess, your granddaughter has her share of faults. So do I. Neither of us have tried to deceive the other about those faults, however."
"What you mean," she countered with withering scorn, "is that neither of you made any protestations of eternal love or devotion before you jumped into bed together."