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Sleek black limos were a common sight parked in front of St. Vincent's, one of Manhattan's premier private schools, and Bella McAndrews barely gave this one a thought as she knelt down on the sun-warmed sidewalk to say goodbye to her students. It was the last day of school; a procession of twelve kindergartners hugged her and then ran to waiting vehicles. She bumped her chin against their navy wool blazers, emblazoned with the St. Vincent's crest, her chest tightening as each pair of arms squeezed her. The children were precious and unique and she'd enjoyed having every one in her class. By the time her final student approached, she could barely speak past the lump in her throat.
"This is for you." The boy's blue eyes were solemn as he handed her a pencil drawing. "So you won't forget me."
"As if I could do that." Bella blinked away hot tears and glanced down at the self-portrait. What she held was no ordinary drawing by a six-year-old. Justin had shown talent early and his parents had given him private art lessons. Bella couldn t help but wonder what her brothers and sisters could have accomplished if they'd been given all the opportunities afforded Justin by his wealthy parents.
"This is very nicely done, Justin."
"Thank you." A grin transformed his solemn expression. Before Bella could be glad that he was acting like a normal six-year-old for a change, he became a serious man-child once more. "I hope you have a nice summer," he finished in formal tones.
Pasting on a bright smile, she got to her feet. Inside, her mood reflected the gray sky above. She watched, her chest heavy, until he got into the back of a black Town Car. Most of her fellow teachers were as excited as their students as the end of the school year approached, but Bella wasn't fond of partings. If she'd had her way, she'd keep her kindergart-ners forever. But that wasn't how life worked. Her job was to guide their growth and prepare them for new challenges. As difficult as it was for her, she had to set them free. How else could they soar?
The sound of her name cut through the excited chatter of children being released from their educational imprisonment. She stiffened, recognizing Blake Ford's deep voice, even though she hadn't heard it since late last summer. A rush of joy rooted her to the spot. Twenty feet away the heavy wood doors of St. Vincent's offered her a place to hide. Common sense urged her to flee. He would be perceptive enough to figure out how miserable she'd been these past nine months and curious enough to wonder why.
Acting as if she hadn't heard Blake, she pivoted toward the school. But before she could escape, she felt Blake's long fingers on her left arm. Apprehension shivered along her nerve endings. The light hold prevented her flight and agitated her pulse. He'd had this effect on her from the start.
Bracing herself against an unwelcome stab of delight, she turned in his direction.
His wide shoulders, encased in gray wool, blocked her view of the street and the long limo parked at the curb. She gathered a deep breath to steady herself and gulped in a heavy dose of Blake. He smelled of soapthe fresh, clean scent of a mountain stream. No fussy cologne for Blake Ford.
Enigmatic. Intense. Brooding. Blake had fascinated and frightened her at their first meeting at the fertility clinic. But the intuitiveness she'd inherited from Grandma Izzy, for whom she was named, had told her to hear him out on that occasion.
She'd come to New York City to be a surrogate for a couple who'd decided to give in vitro a try, but before she could meet with them, the wife's best friend offered to carry their child.
Around the same time, Blake and Victoria had come to accept that a surrogate was the only move left for them. Thinking Bella would be a good fit with the power couple, the doctor at the clinic had arranged for Bella to meet Blake and his wife.
Over a cup of coffee, as Blake and Victoria had shared their deep sadness at their inability to conceive, Bella had decided Blake was more than just the successful, driven CEO of a large investment management firm. He was a man with a deep yearning for family.
"Blake, how nice to see you." Her voice held a breathless edge. She dug her fingernails into her palm and told herself to get a grip. "What brings you to St. Vincent's?"
His hand fell away. He had no need to keep a physical hold on her. His resolute gaze held her transfixed. "You."
"Me?" Her stomach somersaulted. "I don't understand."
They'd not parted on the best of terms. He hadn't understood why she wanted no future contact with his family and she had no intention of enlightening him, no matter how insistently he'd pressed her for an explanation. Where did she start?
Her unexpected and unwished-for reluctance to give up the child she'd carried for nine months? The fact that his wife had told her in no uncertain terms that she was never to contact them again? The way his simplest touch sparked something elemental and forbidden? The certainty that she'd betray her moral code if he gave her the slightest inkling that he wanted her?
"You didn't go back to Iowa like you said you were going to."
She saw an unyielding wall of accusations in his steel-blue eyes. He was annoyed. Not glad to see her. So why had he come?
"St. Vincent's asked me back for a second year." Guilt poked at her, but Bella ignored it. She didn't owe him anything more than the explanation she gave most everyone. The real reason she'd stayed in New York was because she felt connected to the child she'd carried. But the truth was too troubling and deeply personal to share. "They pay better than the public schools back home." During their previous association, she'd let him believe she was preoccupied with money. It had kept him from questioning her motivations. "And I've really grown to love New York."
"So your mother said." He slid his hand into the pocket of his exquisitely tailored suit coat.
"You called my parents?"
"How else did you think I found you?" He regarded her impassively. "She and I had quite a chat. You didn't tell them the truth about what brought you to New York, did you?"
Bella regarded him with exasperation. Should she have shared with her conservative-leaning parents that she'd lent out her womb to strangers for nine months so she could stop the bank from repossessing the farm that had been in her father's family for four generations? Not likely. It was better that they believe she'd taken a high-paying job in New York City and been able to secure a personal loan because of that. Her mother had been very upset with her for going into debt for them, but Bella assured her it was something she felt strongly about doing for her family. "I didn't want them to worry."
"In the last nine months, I've discovered that worrying is what parents do."
When his attention shifted to the car behind him, she relaxed slightly, happy to have his focus off her. "I imagine you have."
She had worries of her own. Was the child she'd given birth to happy? Did he get to see enough of his busy parents? Were they playing peekaboo with him? Reading him a bedtime story? She hated the ache in her heart. It exposed how badly she'd deceived herself.
"I assume my parents were curious about who you were and why you'd called looking for me. What did you tell them?"
"That I was someone you used to work for."
Which, in a twisted way, wasn't far from the truth. "Just that?" She couldn't believe that her mother had given up her whereabouts to a stranger on the phone. Hadn't she been the tiniest bit suspicious? Of course, Blake had a reassuring way about him. After all, after spending thirty minutes with him, Bella had agreed to act as the surrogate mother to his child. "Or did you have to tell them more?"
"I said you'd taken care of my son and I wanted to see how you were doing."
"I'm doing just fine."
His gaze slid over her as if to reassure himself she was indeed well. "You certainly look great."
"Thanks." While Blake's once-over carried no sexual intent, it still sparked unwelcome heat to run through her veins.
It would be humiliating if he ever discovered how her body reacted to his nearness. "How are you?"
"As usual," she quipped, wringing a disgruntled frown from him. Funny how they'd fallen back into familiar patterns. For a second it was as if three-quarters of a year hadn't separated them. "Always the workaholic."
He shook his head. "Not anymore. You'll be happy to know that I'm home every night by five o'clock. My son is too important for me to neglect."
He spoke firmly, determined to emphasize that his priorities were different from his father's, a man Blake grew up barely knowing because he spent so much time at the office or out of town on business. In the days before Bella had gotten pregnant with Blake and Victoria's baby, she'd been concerned about Blake's long hours, but a serious conversation about his childhood had reassured her that his son would be a top priority in his life.
"I know." His granite features softened for the space of a heartbeat, reminding her how he'd looked the day the ultrasound announced he was going to have a son.
Joy caused her pulse to spike. The months apart from him hadn't dimmed her reaction to his every mood. She remained enthralled by his powerful personality and susceptible to the dimples that dented his cheeks in those rare moments when he smiled.
"I knew you'd make a good father." It was why she'd agreed to be the surrogate for his child.
"It's a lot more work than I expected." His eyes lost focus. "And a lot more rewarding."
"How's Andrew?" She'd been equal parts thrilled and dismayed that Blake and Victoria had used part of her surname to christen their son.
"We call him Drew," Blake explained. "He's smart. Curious. Happy."
"He sounds delightful." Her longing to snuggle himwhich had dimmed to an ache these past few monthsflared up again. Bella crossed her arms against the sudden pain in her chest.
"What are your plans for the summer?"
The abruptness of his question caught her off guard. "My roommate and I are helping her cousin with her catering business." It was something she'd done regularly since moving in with Deidre, except for those months when pregnancy had made it too uncomfortable for Bella to spend hours on her feet. "Why?"
"I need a nanny for Drew this summer. The girl who's been taking care of him fell and broke her leg in three places a week ago and I need someone who can fill in for the next two months until she's recovered."
"Surely there are agencies that can help you out."
"I'm disinclined to look for someone that way. It took me thirty candidates before I found Talia. We are leaving for the Hamptons on Saturday. I'd like you to join us."
Besieged by conflicting emotions, Bella offered a neutral response. "It's nice that you thought of me."
Only it wasn't nice. It was unbearable. Walking away from the child who'd grown beneath her heart had shredded the tender organ. She'd cherished him when he'd been a flutter of movement in her belly. How was she supposed to take care of him for two months and not fall madly in love with his happy smile, his delighted giggle, his sweet scent?
She'd thought being a surrogate would be easy for her. In junior high she'd decided being a mom wasn't for her. She didn't want to be like her mother and have her life revolve around her kids. She'd grown up taking care of her brothers and sisters. She wanted to be free of that sort of responsibility. Being pregnant with Drew had challenged all she thought she believed.
Bella shied away from emotions as dangerous to her soul as splintered glass was to her bare feet. "But I really don't think I can."
He narrowed his eyes at her refusal. "I'll pay you more than you'd make as a waitress."
Blake believed that she'd only acted as Drew's surrogate because of the money. That was only partially true. As much as she'd needed the money, she'd really wanted to help him and Victoria grow their family. All through her pregnancy, her intention had been to stay in touch. Blake encouraged her to maintain contact with his son, but Victoria had her own ideas.
She'd pleaded with Bella, asking her to stay out of Drew's life so she and Blake could focus on being a family. It was Victoria's right. And no matter how much it hurt her, Bella wouldn't dream of interfering between husband and wife.
"Have you discussed this with Victoria?" His wife didn't want Bella in the same city as Drew, much less the same house.
"She and I divorced two months ago."
"Oh, Blake." The news rocked her. What had happened to Victoria's determination to make her marriage work? It didn't make sense that she'd given up so easily.
"Turns out Vicky didn't take to being a mother." His un-happiness hit her like a January wind and Bella shivered. "She got a supporting role in an off-Broadway play and threw herself into acting."
Regret flared. Victoria had cut Bella out of Drew's life and then left him without a mother. "Did you have any idea she felt this way?"
"No. It came as a complete surprise." Blake's mouth tightened.
To Bella, as well.
Victoria had thrown herself into preparing the nursery and often quoted from parenting books. But it was Blake who'd accompanied Bella to every doctor's appointment while his wife immersed herself in auditions for off-Broadway shows. Bella had been worried about his long hours at the office, even though he genuinely seemed excited to be a father. She'd obviously focused her anxiety on the wrong parent-to-be.
"I'm so sorry."
Impulsively she touched his arm. The contact zinged from her fingers to her heart in a nanosecond, leaving her wobbly with reaction. She pulled back, but too late to save her composure from harm.
If he noticed her awkwardness, he gave no sign. "Now you understand why I need someone I trust to take care of Drew this summer," he said. "I could use your help."
Demands or bribes she could've easily refused. But turning down this request for help was like asking Superman to lift a truck-sized boulder of kryptonite. The superhero couldn't do it. She was no stronger.
And she was handicapped by her memories of her previous visit to the Hamptons. Early-morning walks on the beach. Sipping tea on the wraparound porch. Blake had invited her to spend two weeks at his vacation property toward the end of her pregnancy. The downside had been loneliness and too much time to think, but on the weekends when Blake and Vicky came with friends and family, the enormous house had been filled with laughter and conversation.
"Are you sure you wouldn't be better off keeping him in the city with you?"
"I'm planning on working most of the week from the beach house. I need someone to keep an eye on Drew during the day while I'm occupied. You can have your evenings free."
"How can you be away from the office that much?" Remembering the long hours he'd put in the year before, she couldn't imagine that Drew would get to spend much time with his father.
A ghost of a smile appeared at her shock. "I told you I've changed."