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Seated in the tastefully decorated reception area at Windy City Industries, Morgan Stevens gripped the upholstered arm of the chair and panted as discreetly as she could.
Breathe, she coached herself. In out and again.
The jagged edge of the contraction was just beginning to wear off when the secretary returned through one of a trio of doors on the opposite wall.
The name on the woman's desk plate was Britney. It suited her to a T. She was young, attractive, model-slender and crisply fashionable in a fitted black suit, bold-print silk blouse and a pair of killer heels. In comparison, Morgan felt decidedly dowdy in her pastel-colored maternity tent and the comfortable flat sandals that were the only shoes that would accommodate her swollen feet.
"I'm sorry, but Mr. Caliborn is busy and can't see you," Britney said, working up a smile that looked about as sincere as a shark's. "Might I suggest you make an appointment before coming by next time?"
Why? So he could be conveniently gone when she got there? No way. Morgan had been trying to reach Bryan Caliborn for months. She laid a hand on her protruding midsection. Nearly nine of them. The only correspondence she'd had in return, if it could be called such, was a letter from his legal counsel advising her that Mr. Caliborn disputed her allegation of paternity. In fact, he disputed knowing her. He considered her claims nothing less than extortion, and he would sue for damages if she continued to make them.
More than hurt and insulted by his threat, Morgan was outraged. If he didn't want to play a role in their child's life, fine. He should just say so. But to say they'd never met, well, that was beyond defense, legal or otherwise. She never would have taken Bryan Caliborn for such a ruthless, heartless man. Nor had he seemed slow, but he had to be if he wasn't aware that all it would take was a bit of DNA to confirm Morgan was telling the truth. She'd hoped, apparently in vain, to avoid that sort of ugliness.
Rising awkwardly to her feet, she returned the young woman's smile with one that was equally insincere. "Fine. Please pencil me in for his earliest availability."
"Let me just check his calendar and see when that might be," Britney said.
Morgan saw no sense in arguing with the secretary. She would deal with the elusive businessman herself. And she would do so now. While Britney walked behind her desk, Morgan headed to the door through which the woman had appeared a moment earlier. She assumed it was Bryan's office. Opening it, however, she found it was a conference room, a conference room that was filled with suit-clad professionals seated around an oblong cherry table. File folders were open in front of them, not that they were looking at the pie charts and bar graphs. They were gaping at Morgan. But it was the man at the far end of the room who held her attention.
Handsome? No. A better word would be arresting. He had dark, almost black hair and eyes of the same fathomless hue. His face was angular with sharp cheekbones and slashing brows that, at the moment, were pulled down in a frown. The nose above his sculpted, flesh-toned lips was thin and just crooked enough to give it character.
Morgan swallowed. Even seated, it was obvious he was tall and powerfully built. Never in her life had she been attracted to the dark and brooding sort, but something about this man was definitely appealing. She told herself it was only because he seemed oddly familiar.
That thought shattered when he spoke. She'd never heard a voice like that before. He didn't break the silence so much as pulverize it. His words boomed through the room like a thunderclap when he demanded, "What is the meaning of this?"
"Sorry," she began, backing up a step only to bump into the secretary, who took Morgan's arm. The gesture seemed more like an effort to detain rather than to steady her, which irritated Morgan enough to prompt her to say, "I need to speak with Bryan Caliborn, and I need to speak to him right now. I thought he might be in here."
"He is." All eyes turned to the big man at the end of the table, who was now rising to his feet. He was every bit of six-four, maybe six-five, and every inch of him radiated power and authority. Again she had the odd feeling that she knew him, but it came as an utter shock when he said, "I'm Bryan Caliborn."
"No." Morgan shook her head, sure that she had heard him wrong. "You're n"
She didn't finish the sentence. Her water broke, releasing in a gush to form an unbecoming puddle on the polished parquet floor. The secretary let go of Morgan's arm and jumped back, anxious to protect her Marc Jacobs pumps from harm. The people seated around the table gasped in unison, pulling back in their seats, as if Morgan's condition were contagious. Only the man who claimed to be Bryan moved. Swearing richly half under his breath, he stalked around the table toward her.
"Sorry," Morgan whispered, though she felt more mortified than apologetic.
She would have left then, turned and run away or waddled as the case may bebut as her luck would have it, another contraction began to build. She angled away from him, hoping to make it to the reception area's couch to wait out the worst of it. She made it only one step before grabbing the door frame and sagging against it. Using the other hand to support her abdomen, she fought the urge to whimper. Nothing was going as planned. Nothing had gone as planned in a long, long time.
"Britney, call an ambulance," the big man barked. To Morgan he said, "I take it you're in labor."
Labor? She was being wrenched apart from the inside out. None of the books she'd read, none of the classes she'd taken had prepared her for this kind of pain. But she nodded, worried that any attempt at speech would release not only a whimper but a wailing shriek. God, she hurt.
She needed to sit down. She needed some of the drugs she'd learned about in her birthing class. She needed her mother. Only one of those things was an option now, but before Morgan could wilt to the floor, she was scooped up in a pair of powerful arms and carried into the office that was one door down from the conference room.
He settled her on the leather couch and returned a moment later with what looked to be a balled-up trench coat and a glass of water. He positioned the trench behind her head on the arm rest and then thrust the glass at her. Morgan wasn't interested in water. For that matter, she doubted she could keep it down.
But she dutifully took it and pretended to sip from the glass. His rigid demeanor told her he wasn't the sort of man who stood for being defied. And while she generally wouldn't stand for being bullied, she was in no shape to put him in his place.
"The ambulance will be here any moment," the secretary said, peeking around the semi-closed door.
"An ambulance really isn't necessary," Morgan began. Not to mention that it would be expensive for someone who had just lost her health insurance along with her teaching job when the school year had ended a week earlier. The economy being what it was, the district didn't have the funds for extras like music.
The worst of the contraction had passed, so she swung her legs over the edge of the couch and planted her feet on the floor. She would go now, exiting as gracefully as her condition allowed. Her car was in the parking ramp adjacent to the building and she could be at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital in less than twenty minutes, assuming the traffic lights and her finicky compact car cooperated.
What stopped her wasn't the big man, even though he took a lurching step in her direction, but the framed picture on the wall just to the right of the door. In it two men stood arm in arm, one dark and brooding, the other fairer and far less serious. Morgan blinked. She knew those smiling eyes, that windblown brown hair and carefree expression. By turns sweet and silly, this was the man with whom she'd spent seven lovely and, for her, uncharacteristically reckless days in Aruba.
She must have said the name aloud because when she glanced over, the man's gaze also was on the photograph, his mouth compressed into a line so tight that it was hard to tell where his top lip ended and the bottom one began.
"You do know him," she accused, pointing to the photograph. "You do know Bryan Caliborn."
" I am Bryan Caliborn," he proclaimed a second time. "That's Dillon, my younger brother."
The words registered slowly, poking through a haze of disbelief. Though a part of her wanted to dispute them, the proofall six-feet-something of itwas literally standing before her, his arms crossed, his expression ominous and intractable.
Bryan rather, Dillonthe man who'd fathered Morgan's baby, hadn't given her his real name. This wasn't exactly the kind of revelation a woman needed to hear with motherhood a few centimeters and a couple of hard pushes away. It made Morgan wonder what else he had lied about. What other truths he had obscured with his beguiling kisses and those impeccable manners she'd found every bit as seductive as his smile.
In her best schoolteacher's voice, she demanded, "I want to see him." For good measure, she added, "And don't you dare tell me I need to make an appointment. As you can see, I'm not in any condition to wait an hour let alone a week or two."
"It's not possible," the real Bryan had the audacity to say. She opened her mouth, intending to let loose with a blistering retort. Before she could, though, he said, "Dillon's dead."
Anger abandoned her, evaporating like water on hot asphalt. Bewilderment took its placebewilderment and a couple dozen other emotions that swirled around in a dizzying mix. Since her legs threatened to give, Morgan backed up to the couch, sinking onto its cushions.
Bryan's head jerked down in a nod.
"But how? When?" She asked the questions, needing to know even though the answers really didn't matter. What would they change? Not only was she about to become a single mother, her baby would never know his or her father. She swallowed a fresh wave of nausea. For that matter she hadn't known her baby's father.
"Six months ago. A skiing accident in Vail, Colorado." The words came out stilted, made curt by grief. Or was that some other emotion lurking in those onyx eyes?
"I I didn't know."
"Neither did I." He glanced meaningfully at her stomach. "Where did you and Dillon meet?"
"Aruba. Last August."
She'd gone there alone, using the tickets she'd bought her folks for their thirtieth wedding anniversary. They'd never had a honeymoon. Morgan had wanted to give them one as a surprise. Before she could, though, they'd died in a fluke carbon monoxide accident at their home. Though she wasn't one to make excuses for her behavior, her grief helped explain why someone as levelheaded as she usually was had fallen for the faux Bryan's advances in the first place. She'd been lost, lonely. He'd been charming and a distraction from bitter reality.
"And you spent time with my brother?" One brow arched in disapproval as Bryan once again glanced at her abdomen.
If she'd felt awkward and conspicuous before, she felt doubly so now. She stood, intent on leaving this time, though where exactly she would go beyond the hospital she hadn't a clue. She was between jobs, between homes and in a strange city without family.
A pair of emergency medical technicians arrived before Morgan could get to the door. They carried black bags and were pushing a gurney.
She held up a hand. "Oh, this really isn't necessary. I can get to the hospital on my own steam. My contractions aren't that close together."
Even as she said this another one began. Just how many minutes had passed since the last? She didn't dare chance a glance at her wrist now.
"It is necessary," Bryan objected. "Assuming what you say is true, that child is a Caliborn."
"Assuming" She gritted her teeth, and not because of the contraction. She would have stalked out then, but one of the technicians, a kind-faced man with salt-and-pepper hair and a bushy mustache, laid a hand on her arm.
"Let's have a look at you first, okay? We wouldn't want you to have that baby while you're stuck in traffic on Michigan Avenue."
He reminded Morgan of her father, which was the only reason she let him lead her back to the couch.
Once she was seated, the EMT knelt in front of her and pulled a blood-pressure cuff from his bag. As it inflated over her upper arm, she glanced at Bryan, who stared back at her stone-faced. She was coming to know that expression. She could only imagine what he was thinking.
Damn Dillon! Damn him for doing this. And damn him for being dead!
Bryan wanted to throttle his little brother, pin him in a chokehold like he used to do when they were kids and pound some sense into him. Only he couldn't. Knowing that reopened a wound that had just barely begun to heal. Why did Dillon have to go and get himself killed?