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Kate Montgomery's younger sister, Lindy, charged into the workroom at Gourmet Gifts To Go and slammed her crammed bookbag down between the stacks of Thanksgiving gift baskets and decorative Christmas sleighs still waiting to be filled. "He's here," she announced.
Kate looked up from the home-delivery order form emblazoned with the logo of her Chapel Hill, North Carolina, store. Although she and her twenty-six-year-old sister looked alikethey had the same pale blond hair and light green eyesthey remained as different as night and day. Lindy, who couldn't get enough of school, was currently finishing up her PhD in mathematics. Whereas Kate had had all she could bear of classroom education after just four years of college.
"Who's here?" Kate asked casually.
Lindy slipped off her UNC windbreaker with the sweatshirt lining. "That guy with the really sexy voice who keeps calling you for an appointment and won't say why. He's cu-u-u-te, Kate. You ought to go talk to him. After all," Lindy said to Kate, a matchmaker's sparkle in her eyes, "he might not be selling anything."
That'll be the day, Kate thought, her lips curving upward wryly as she added tins of smoked salmon and chocolate truffles to a gift basket already filled with goodies. "That's what you said about the last half-dozen," Kate reminded her sister patiently as she carefully fit in individual packets of raspberry-flavored cappuccino and fruit snack mix. "And I ended up listening to two life insurance salesmen ready to write policies on my baby in utero, a peddler of encyclopedias ready to educate my child via audiotape, a beachfront property time-share Realtor who wanted me to have a vacation home to take my baby to, a financial analyst who wanted to plan my baby's college fund for him or her andlast but not least a person who just knew, because I was pregnant, that I'd be needing to turn in my beloved Saturn sedan for a station wagon ASAP."
Always quick to help out, Lindy cut off a length of blue satin ribbon and tied it around the handle of the wicker basket Kate was filling. "How do you figure all these guys know you're pregnant?" she asked, pausing to make sure the bow was tied just so.
"And single? I don't know." Kate slid off the stool and straightened, one hand on her aching back. Today was one of those days she just couldn't seem to get comfortable. She'd been having a lot of them lately. Though never had she felt this sort of aching, insistent pressure in her thighs, too. She smiled at Lindy, who was not only her only sibling but her closest friend. She strode past the Santa cookie tins and golden-mesh gift totes that were sold year-round. "But I guess I do need to go talk to this guy before he interferes with any of my regular customers."
Lindy cupped a hand around her mouth and used the low singsong voice they'd adapted when both were starry-eyed teenagers, "Be nice now. He really is cute."
Kate rolled her eyes at the blatant matchmaking. Suddenly, everyoneincluding her strongest ally wanted her to get married again, but she knew there was no way that was going to happen. One disastrous marriage was enough. She was ready for motherhood. And nothing else. Meantime, there was this nuisance to be dealt with, afternoon deliveries to be made, a quick dinner with her mother and one final Lamaze class to attend. And all in the five hours before nine o'clock, her self-imposed bedtime these days.
Taking a deep breath, Kate tucked the satiny ends of her pale blond bob behind her ears, smoothed the lines of her black velvet maternity jumper and white satin blouse and breezed into the shop where Dulcie, the store's assistant manager, and Jeff, another part-time employee and premed student, were busy chatting it up with a well-dressed man in his early thirties. Her glance sweeping past the window display promoting upcoming holidays and events namely Thanksgiving, semester exams and Christmas Kate focused on the center of activity.
Darn it all if her younger sister wasn't right, she thought, amused despite herself as she glided gracefully between the rows of elegant gift baskets and gourmet treats. The persistent man of mystery was cute. Devastatingly so, even in profile. His dark sable brown hair was windblown and shiny clean, his ruggedly handsome face clean-shaven and, she noted as she neared, scented with a deliciously spicy aftershave. Tall and fit, he was dressed in khaki slacks, a pale blue shirt and tie and a navy sport coat that made the most of his broad, imposing shoulders. "Here Kate is now!" Dulcie said, and beamed at her introduction.
The attractive stranger turned to her, enfolding her hand in the warm, strong palm of his. "I'm Dr. Michael Sloane. I work over at the medical center."
And, Kate thought, alarmed, he wanted to talk to her in person and wouldn't say why. As her next thought came with frightening speed, Kate's hand flew to her swollen tummy and hovered there protectively. "The baby," she said breathlessly. "Is there"
"There's nothing wrong with the baby." Michael Sloane paused. His sensually chiseled lips thinned and he looked her over from head to toe before his sable brown eyes lasered in on hers with disarming intimacy. "Is there some place we could talk privately?"
If ever there was a person who looked like he'd been tapped to deliver bad news, it was Michael Sloane. Kate swallowed. "This is serious, isn't it?" she asked softly.
"It's" He stopped abruptly. Took her arm firmly but gently. "Before we continue, we need to be somewhere you can sit down."
As Michael had half expected, Kate dug in her heels and refused to budge. "Anything you want to sell me, you can sell me right here," she told him stubbornly.
No doubt about it, Michael Sloane thought as he studied the five-foot-six-inch blond dynamo, the woman was every bit as memorable and feisty as the guys at the lab had said she was. In general, Michael had never really cared for short hair on women, but Kate's silky pale blond bob suited her perfectly, even at this late stage of her pregnancy. Her face was heart-shaped and pretty, her features delicate, feminine and perfectly proportioned. Her light green eyes were framed with twin sets of thick blond eyelashes and delicate brows, her skin fair, her full lips and delicate cheeks a natural shell pink.
"I told you before, Ms. Montgomery," he said, aware the bizarre circumstances he found himself in left him no choice but to be darned mysterious over the phone as he'd tried to get an appointment with her. Only to be cut off as soon as she found he wasn't willing to disclose the very delicate nature of what he wanted to discuss with her over the phone for fear she'd be so upset she'd cut and run. "I'm not selling insurance," he told her dryly. Although, as he took in her sexy, feminine build, he half wished he was.
"Then what, pray tell, are you selling?" Kate asked, pushing the hair from her heart-shaped face. "Opportunity?"
More like bad news, Michael thought, as he inhaled the intoxicating smell of her tuberose-and-jasmine perfume. Really bad news, at least as far as single mother-to-be Kate Montgomery was likely to think. Still, this was no discussion to be having while she was on her feet in the middle of the shop.
The door opened. A group of customers walked in. Dulcie and Jeff went to wait on them, and Kate led Michael into the back of the immaculately kept store. On one side of a narrow hallway was a workroom and storage area. On the other were a lounge, office and bathroom. Kate led him into the small but cozy office decorated in shades of pale mossy green and cream.
Hoping fervently she wouldn't scream, faint or cry uncontrollably when he told her the news, he gestured toward the sofa opposite her desk and suggested mildly, "Perhaps you'd like to sit down."
Kate shook her head and kept her eyes on his. "I'd prefer to stand," she said.
And, Michael thought, she'd prefer him to leaveimmediatelyjudging from the expression on her face. "All right," he said reluctantly, knowing he was going to have to blurt it out. "We'll do it your way. As I said earlier, my name is Dr. Michael Sloane." Michael reached into his coat pocket and produced several pieces of identification for her perusal. "I'm an emergency room physician at the medical center in Chapel Hill."
Kate studied the ID in her hand without comment, then carefully handed it all back.
"I'm here because I have something to tell you about your baby's biological father."
Kate paled and backed up until her hips were resting against the edge of her desk. She folded her arms in front of her swollen tummy in a protective gesture. "You couldn't possibly know anything about that," she said stiffly, beginning to look all the more perturbed with his uninvited presence.
"That's where you're wrong." Michael paused, knowing however he said this, whenever he said this, it was likely to be a tremendous shock. He sat on the sofa opposite her and clasped his hands between his spread knees. "I know everything there is to know about him."
Kate's beautiful eyes turned stormy as she circled her desk and carefully lowered herself into the upholstered swivel chair behind it. "Then you also know he's chosen to be anonymous," she said tightly, as pink swept into her high, delicately chiseled cheeks.
"I know the person you selected to father your baby felt that way," Michael corrected.
Kate's green eyes did not waver from his. "So if you will kindly leave," Kate continued.
Michael shook his head in mute disagreement. "Not before I tell you what I came here to say."
Kate's chest rose and fell beneath her white satin blouse and black velvet jumper. "And that is "
There was no easy way to say this. Michael swallowed. "I'm your baby's father."
Long, incredulous seconds ticked past. Kate shot to her feet. So did he. "That's impossible," Kate said flatly at last as she stormed around her desk to confront him.
His feelings rigidly in check, Michael towered over her. "How do you figure that?" he asked softly, studying her from head to toe.
"Because!" Kate flushed at the way he was looking her over. "You're not at all what I ordered," she told him hotly.
No surprise there, Michael thought. He hadn't ordered this, either. But it had happened. And like it or not, this delectable-looking blond with the fiercely independent nature was bearing his child. "What did you order, then?" he asked curiously, determined to rescue them both from this mess whether she wanted his help or not.
Kate flushed and gave him a self-conscious look that spoke volumes about her comfort zone with men. "Someone of medium height and builda maximum of five-ten, one hundred and eighty pounds."
Michael struggled to keep his mind on the conversation rather than the slender and suppleyet very pregnant and femininebody beneath her black velvet jumper. He had never realized a pregnant woman could turn him on like this. "And I'm six feet two inches tall and two hundred pounds."
Her lips curved wryly as she folded her arms beneath the soft swell of her breasts and admitted, "Not to mention way too athletic and solidly built."
His glance roved the incredible softness of her hair and face before returning to the sparkling intelligence of her light green eyes. "Don't tell me you're one who thinks brains and athletic talent are traits that are mutually exclusive?" he teased.
"You said it, not me," Kate replied, just as humorously.
"Although now that you mention it" she turned to give him an appraising glance that heated his blood "you do look like someone who played a lot of ball."
"Baseball, and you're right, I did, all through elementary, junior high and high school. I was also on the honor rolls and a member of Phi Beta Kappa." Neither of which was any big deal to him. Nor, he felt, should it be to her.
"See, that's another thing." Kate breezed past him and headed for the workroom, where a dozen or so gift baskets were lined up, waiting to be delivered. She fished a set of keys off a hook, picked up a basket filled with wine and cheese and headed for the exit, her hips sashaying lightly.
"I didn't want anyone who was too smart."
Admiring her composure in the face of such a potential catastrophe, Michael held the door as she slipped past him.
"I didn't want my child to be called a nerd by the other kids. Furthermore," Kate confided petulantly as she slid the key in the lock and opened the back of the full-size powder blue Gourmet Gifts To Go delivery van, "I wanted the father I selected to have blond hair, fair skin and blue eyes." She slid the basket onto the carpeted floor of the van, then straightened, leaned against the door and looked at him. "Not sable brown hair and eyes to match."
Unable to help himself, Michael laughed. "This is the first time those traits have ever been held against me!"
"I'm not holding them against you!" Kate pivoted on her heel and headed into the building at a clip. "I'm just using them to point out the fact that the lab couldn't possibly have mixed up your sperm with the sperm of the man I selected." She lifted two more baskets-to-go into her arms and watched as Michael pitched in and did the same. "You're just too far off from what I wanted," she explained logically.