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Seven Oaks Farm—Bridgehampton, NY
Vanessa Hughes had been burned. And it had nothing to do with the summer sun beating down overhead as she stood on the sidelines watching the polo match in action. The earth vibrated beneath her high heels from the thundering hooves passing by.
The calendar didn't lie. She was late. Scary late. Maybe pregnant late.
Her stomach bubbled with nausea. She'd forced herself to eat. She had to regulate her blood-sugar level for her diabetes, but fear had her ready to upchuck. Clamping her hand on top of her broad-brimmed hat, she peered through her overlarge sunglasses at one particular player in all black, riding his favorite chestnut sorrel.
Two months of being romanced by the intense and passionate Nicolas Valera had been magical, soothing and stirring all at once. Although they hadn't slept together again since the sauna incident, he'd provided her much-needed distraction from confusion over learning of her adoption. Those moments of being secretly whisked away in a limo, finding anonymous flowers on her pillow, even stealing kisses in a kitchen pantry, had carried her through. She'd thought she'd found the perfect solution, and she had even considered giving in to temptation and indulging in uncomplicated sex.
That was impossible now. She was ninety-nine percent sure she was pregnant. Even thinking about the possibility made her sway in her high heels. She just had to get up the nerve to take the home pregnancy test stashed in the bottom of her voluminous purse. And she would. After the match.
Thank goodness sunglasses kept her eyes from betraying her fear to the crowd around her under the large white tent— the mainstay of old-money New Yorkers, Europeans, artsy and cultured Hampton royalty mixed with a couple of Hollywood celebrities. And right beside her stood Brittney Hannon, a high-profile senator's daughter.
Vanessa fanned her face with the program booklet. Her ever-present shades enabled her to watch Nicolas undetected as he rode across the field, mallet swinging.
Maximo's coat gleamed like a shiny penny. Nicolas loved that horse, a Crillo/Thoroughbred mix. Maximo wasn't the largest, but he was absolutely fearless.
How would he react when she told him the news? It wasn't as if they had a real relationship beyond attraction. She wasn't sure how much more upheaval she could take.
Her heart nearly cracked in two to think of her father lying to her about being adopted. He'd always been there for her before. Her mom, however, had ignored Vanessa unless cameras were present. Not so nice to think ill of the dead, but then Vanessa didn't have much experience tempering her thoughts and emotions. This whole "good girl" gig was new to her.
She'd tried her best to clean up her act this summer, for her father's sake. No more wild-child acting out in public.
Private indulgences were another matter altogether. She just couldn't stay away from Nicolas, and that could cost her big-time. Their secret affair wouldn't be so secret once her pregnancy started showing. She glared at the ever-present cameras from behind the protective shield of her sunglasses.
"Damn paparazzi," she muttered, tapping her large black sunglasses in place.
Pulling a picture-perfect smile, Brittney Hannon linked arms with Vanessa. "As I've learned the hard way, press photos are an unavoidable part of the game. Don't let them ruin the match for you."
Vanessa turned to the senator's daughter, who'd weathered a bit of scandal herself at the start of the summer. Who'd have thought she would find a kindred spirit in the conservatively dressed Brittney, who had a reputation for being the antithesis of her showgirl mother?
"Don't you ever get tired of it?" Vanessa asked. The press had splashed racy photos of Brittney and a well-known playboy, only to learn later the two were engaged. "Don't you want some privacy? It's not as if we asked to be born into this."
Brittney blinked in surprise. And no wonder. Vanessa was known for welcoming the limelight. She'd never even considered that one day she might feel differently, and she sure hadn't realized how difficult it would be to step into the shadows.
The politician's daughter shrugged an elegant shoulder. "My father has the chance to make a real difference for our country. He takes a lot of heat as a natural byproduct of the job. The least I can do is keep my nose clean and smile for the paparazzi. Besides, none of this is real. It's all just for show." The outwardly reserved woman struck a subdued pose for the cameras, dimples showing in her cheeks. She spoke quietly out of the side of her mouth as she said, "But when I get away from all this, I'm finding it easier than I expected to simply indulge in being happy."
Vanessa wasn't even sure she knew the meaning of happy. The closest she'd come was the excitement of being with Nicolas, yet even that left her hollow inside afterward. Aching. Feeling she was missing something.
Brittney tapped Vanessa's arm with a French-manicured nail. "You have some dirt on the hem of your dress."
Gasping, Vanessa looked down at her simple, white Valentino Garavani original. "Really?" She twisted to look behind her. "Where?"
"Just teasing so you'll lighten up. You never have so much as a speck on you. Now smile."
Halfway through the round of clicking cameras, halftime started. Finally, she would be closer to Nicolas.
Vanessa slid her Jimmy Choo Saba bag from her shoulder, slipped off her heels and pulled on a pair of simple flats. Waving a quick goodbye to Brittney, Vanessa tucked her strappy heels into her oversize leather purse.
Time to divot-stomp. One of her earliest memories of coming to the matches was of holding her daddy's hand and stomping down the chunks of earth churned up from the polo ponies' hooves. She would jump up and down, smashing the ground until her Mary Janes were covered in mud.
Her mother had hated how she came home dirty, her huge hair bow lopsided. Vanessa stifled a wince. She'd despised those bows that weighed a ton and pulled her ponytail back so tightly from her face that she had a headache by the end of the day.
Smile nice for the camera, Nessa.
What a pretty baby.
The only way to get her mother's attention had been to go on shopping trips or sit still for a hair brushing. Her mother touched her only during those primping routines or when posing her for the camera.
Once she'd gotten out from under Lynette Hughes's fashionista thumb, Vanessa wore white. All the time, every day. She'd already spent two lifetimes in front of a three-way mirror as her mom put together perfectly color-coordinated outfits.
No more picking or choosing for Vanessa.
These days her hair stayed straight and free in the wind, or simply sleeked back in a low ponytail. Sunglasses covered her eyes so she never had to blink back dots from camera flashes.
People called her an eccentric drama queen. She was just tired of being a baby doll.
Her brain snagged on the word. Her breath caught in her throat as she thought of having to tell Nicolas, of ending the fragile, tantalizing truce they'd forged. And her gaze zipped right back to the only man who could have fathered her baby, if she was indeed pregnant.
Nicolas would mingle with the divot-stomping crowd at halftime, even autograph some polo balls. He was a renowned six-handicap player after all, in the top five percent of players in the world. With fans—and with her—he would be coolly reserved, as always.
They wouldn't be able to talk, according to the rules of their summer-seduction game. Normally, she would have enjoyed playing out the moment. But today, she resisted the urge to check her watch. How long before she could slip away and use the pregnancy test tucked deep in the bottom of her purse? As much as she feared the answer, she couldn't afford to wait, not with her health concerns. Her diabetes could place both her and a baby at risk. She stomped a chunk of dirt back into the ground with extra oomph and wished her fears were as easily addressed.
Tingles prickled along her arms as Nicolas approached. She could feel him, could have even sworn she caught a whiff of his signature scent on the wind, a soap-and-cologne combo that smelled enticingly of bay leaves. He drew closer. If she hadn't known by his scent, she would have been able to guess by the reaction of those around her. People slowed, their eyes fixed on her as if waiting for her to react.
Nicolas stepped alongside her, nearly shoulder to shoulder. Her fears and wants tangled up inside her until she almost lost her balance. Nicolas pressed his booted foot ever so precisely in front of her, leveling the ground, then walking past with only the barest brush of his hand against hers. He never looked at her, didn't even miss a stride even though his simple touch had set her senses on fire.
Her fist closed around the scrap of paper he'd slid into her palm. She might not yet know the specifics of what he'd written, but she knew without question she would be seeing him alone soon.
Nicolas had arranged the location for their next tryst.
Six hours later, Nicolas added a twist of lime to his sparkling water. Nothing stronger for him at tonight's party. He never drank during the season.
Even if the timing had been different, he needed to keep his mind sharp. His instincts told him he was close to his goal of getting Vanessa back into his bed. Yes, he knew one misstep could cost him the whole game, but he had hope.
He glanced at his Rolex—thirty minutes to kill at this party before ducking out to meet her at the Seven Oaks boathouse.
Bridgehampton polo season parties were always top notch. The highest of high society pulled out all the stops entertaining their friends and celebrities in for the summer. The extravagance was so far beyond his spartan upbringing in Argentina. His village could have eaten for a month off the food spread out at multiple stations. Most gatherings were fundraisers, which took the edge off some of the decadence. Between his polo earnings and sportswear endorsements, his bank balance matched that of most of the partygoers. Still, he wouldn't forget where he came from. Nicolas emptied half his high-priced water.
Tonight's benefit was for the Humane Society. Hollywood star Bella Hudson had flown out with her hotel-magnate husband—and their dogs. Bella was talking with fellow actress Carmen Atkins. The two movie stars held the press's attention for now. Nicolas took the rare free moment to look at Vanessa.
Twenty-five years old—she was young, so young with her pampered life—yet she charmed the hell out of him. The tabloids painted a party-girl picture and he'd bought into that last year, never bothering to look deeper, only thinking about their next sexual encounter. But over the past couple of months, he'd come to realize Vanessa was also smart, witty and sensitive.
Their breakup had been tumultuous last year—and tough. He'd never known he could want someone that much. Now? He couldn't even look away, much less leave. Abundant energy crackled from her petite frame, no more than five foot two inches, if that. She always wore high heels and still barely reached his chin.
Tonight, in her white satin dress, she was very much the "celebutante," perfectly groomed to catch the camera's eye. For some reason he'd never learned, she always wore white and managed to stay pristinely clean whether outdoors at polo matches or under a big tent at a Humane Society fundraiser with pets on leashes all around. Since the sun had gone down, he could see her unshielded eyes, a pale blue that turned almost silver when he made love to her.
His body jolted at the mere thought of being with Vanessa. Their secretive romancing had him on edge. He clamped down the urge to simply haul her off to the nearest room. Except he couldn't afford a repeat of the scene she'd thrown last year. He needed to project a professional image, important for his dream of launching his own training camp, even someday owning his own team.
Nicolas shifted his gaze from her to the linen-draped table of food beside her and walked closer. Swiping a tiny napkin, he trained his eyes forward and spoke to Vanessa behind the cover of his raised drink. "Did you help with the party plans?"
"Why would you say that?" She also kept her attention forward, her gaze not even straying his way as she cradled a glass of sparkling water with lime—like his own drink.
He nodded lightly toward the gauzy tent. "Everything is white."
Hydrangeas rested in clear crystal containers. Mammoth flower arrangements sat on top of pristine pillars. At least a tenth of the guests had brought their pets, yet there wasn't so much as a muddy paw print marring the décor.
Smiling, Vanessa inhaled deeply. "I adore lilies and stephanotis."
A tuxedoed waiter passed, carrying a silver tray of hors d'ouevres. Nicolas popped a smoked salmon canapé in his mouth, while Vanessa reached for a portabella mushroom and herb bruschetta. Her hand shook.
He looked from her arm up to her pale face. "Are you all right?"
"You played well today." Ignoring his question, she dabbed at the corners of her mouth, her lipstick leaving traces on her napkin.
All summer she'd made a point of leaving hidden lip prints on his body for him to find when he showered later. Yet he still hadn't sealed the deal.
God, he couldn't wait to get her alone in the boathouse. He'd even set up a few surprises for her there. He glanced at his watch. Twenty-seven more endless minutes.
At least he could talk to her now. The shoosh of the champagne fountain on one side and the bubbling of the white chocolate fondue on the other added extra cover for their conversation.
She sipped her sparkling water, as the band took to the stage after their break. "I can't meet you tonight."
Surprise hit him, and disappointment, too. "You are free after this gathering, and I know it."
"Are you spying on me?"
"I just listen well enough to know you do not have plans."
"Then listen now." She placed her cup on the table. "I can't always be at your beck and call."
Surprise shifted to irritation. "You are the one who set the rules for this game."
"Sometimes rules have to change because—" Vanessa bit her lip as another waiter passed. They'd spent the whole summer brushing elbows at cocktail and garden parties, softball tournaments and music festivals, alternately ignoring each other and pretending they hated each other, while he found creative ways to pass messages for meetings. He started with simple whispered instructions of a place and time and moved on to a note scrawled on a napkin tucked into her bag.