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San Francisco, Present Day
Working Lauren Presley out of his system had turned out to be tougher than Jason Reagert thought when he'd left New York. But up until sixty seconds ago, he'd been giving it a damn good try.
Clinking glasses, frenetic conversation and blaring eighties music in the high-end bar swelled more tightly around him. He looked up from the photo on his Black-Berry to the woman he'd been flirting with for the past half hour, then back down at the just-in image of Lauren Presley celebrating New Year's Day.
An unmistakably pregnant Lauren Presley.
He wasn't often at a loss for words—he was considered a major player in the advertising business, after all.
But right now? His mind blanked. Maybe because his brain was suddenly filled with visions of that impulsive encounter in her office. Had that surprise—mind-blowing—night produced a baby? He hadn't spoken to Lauren since then, but she hadn't called, either. Certainly not with any pregnancy news. He blinked twice fast, the bar coming into focus again.
Pink mirrored walls cast a rosy glow as he studied the shocker image just sent by an NYC pal. He schooled his face to remain neutral while he figured out the best way to make contact with Lauren. She'd sure shown him the door fast enough the last time they'd seen each other.
Some guy gyrating to overloud music jostled him from behind and Jason angled to shield the BlackBerry screen from the packed clientele at the local martini bar on Stockton Street. Rosa Lounge was small and quaint and very expensive, pretty dim on the inside but still classy, with green glass tables and black-lacquered chairs.
A white marble bar took up the majority of one wall with bottles suspended overhead, while tall tables lined the other wall, dark wood floors stretching between. Since Rosa Lounge was just a block away from Maddox Communications, right on the park, MC employees tended to gather here when they closed a big deal or finished a major presentation.
His grip tightened on the BlackBerry. This gathering had been called in honor of him. What rotten timing to be the center of attention.
"Hello?" Celia Taylor snapped her manicured fingers in front of his face twice, her Key Lime Martini sparkling through the crystal glass in her other hand. "Hello? Earth to Jason."
He forced his thoughts and focus to Celia, another ad agent at Maddox Communications. Thank God he hadn't even started drinking his Sapporo. He didn't need the top-shelf brew messing with his head. "Right. I'm here. Sorry to zone out on you like that." He tucked the BlackBerry into his suit jacket. The stored photo damn near seared through his Armani jacket and shirt. "Can I get you a refill?"
He'd been about to offer her more—a date—but then the photo had buzzed through. Technology sure did have an ironic sense of timing.
"I'm good." Celia tapped her painted nail against her martini glass. "That must be one hefty work e-mail. I could get insulted by the fact I'm not warranting your full attention, except I'm just jealous my cell phone isn't buzzing."
Celia flicked her bright red hair over her shoulder and perched a hand on her slender hip.
Like Lauren. Damn. Realization kicked him in the conscience.
He'd deluded himself into thinking he was putting Lauren behind him this evening, only to try to pick up the lone redhead in the room. Of course, Lauren had darker, auburn hair and softer curves that had driven him crazy exploring….
Jason set his bottle on the bar and eyed the door, mind made up. Delaying wasn't an option. He had to know. But he also didn't want to alienate Celia.
She was a genuinely nice woman who tried to put on a tough facade in order to be taken seriously in the workplace. She deserved better than to be seen as a substitute for another woman. "Sorry to cut out, but I really need to return a call."
Celia cocked her head to the side, her nose scrunched in confusion before she shrugged. "Sure, whatever. Catch you later." She fanned a wave and pivoted on her spiky heel toward fellow ad exec Gavin.
Jason shouldered sideways through the crush of people in power suits, looking for the best way to duck out so he could place a few phone calls. And find answers.
A hand slid from the press of bodies and clapped him on the shoulder. He turned to find both Maddox brothers, the heads of Maddox Communications—CEO Brock and VP Flynn.
Flynn waved other MC employees nearby to join in and then lifted his drink in toast. "To the man of the hour, Jason Reagert! Congratulations on landing the Prentice account. You've done Madd Comm proud."
"To the wonderboy," CFO Asher Williams called.
"Reagert rules," Gavin cheered.
"Unstoppable," Brock declared, his executive assistant echoing the toast.
Jason pulled a smile for appearances. Bringing in the Prentice Group was undoubtedly a coup, although timing had certainly come into play in winning over the country's largest clothing manufacturing company. Landing Prentice was the next best thing to nabbing Procter & Gamble. Jason had only just moved to California in the fall when Walter Prentice dumped his other PR firm for moral-clause violations.
The ultraconservative Prentice had a rep for ditching firms for anything from hearing that the account exec had visited a local nude beach to realizing an exec was dating two women at once. Jason's eyes flicked to Celia.
Brock dipped a wedge of pork quesadilla in mango sauce. The workaholic had most likely missed lunch. "Spoke with Prentice today and he made a point of singing your praises. Good move sharing those war stories with him."
Jason's feet itched to get to the door. And damn it, he hadn't shared the war stories as a schmooze move. He'd simply discovered a connection there since Prentice's nephew had done a tour about the same time as he had. "Only making polite conversation with the client."
Flynn lifted his glass again. "You're a hero, man. The way you and that SEAL team took out those pirates back in the day…epic."
He'd served his six years in the Navy after college graduation. He'd been a dive officer with a specialty in explosive ordinance disposal, attached to a SEAL team. Sure, he'd helped take out some pirates, saved a few lives, but so had the others around him. "I was only doing my job, same as anyone else."
Brock finished off his dinner with a final bite. "You're definitely on Prentice's radar. Keep your nose clean and you'll go far with his influence. Landing Prentice's clothing line couldn't be better timed, especially with Golden Gate Promotions breathing down our necks."
Golden Gate was their main rival, another family-owned advertising agency with quite a pedigree and still helmed by its original founder, Athos Koteas. Jason understood well the specter that rival cast. This job at Maddox—this chance in California—was everything to him. He wouldn't let anything screw it up.
His BlackBerry buzzed again from inside his jacket. More pictures? Was the guy sending him an ultrasound photo, for crying out loud? His gut pitched. He liked kids, sure, wanted some of his own.
Flynn ducked in closer. "We consider it quite a coup, you charging in with a winning pitch after that lame ass was fired."
Brock smiled sardonically. "Lame ass? Sunburned ass maybe, after hanging out on that beach au naturel."
Low laughter rumbled up from the clustered bunch of MC employees. Jason slid his finger along the neck of his shirt. What a time to remember that Walter Prentice had reportedly disowned his own granddaughter for refusing to marry the father of her kid. Prentice lived by his motto Family Is Everything.
Performance on the job should be all that mattered, damn it. He'd already been dubbed the golden boy at Maddox Communications, a title he'd worked hard to achieve and would do anything to keep. The key word? Worked. He'd earned his way to the top, determined to shed the trust-fund label that had dogged him growing up. He wouldn't allow an impulsive move from four months ago to wreck his chances for the success he'd damn well paid for.
He'd walked away from the carrot of joining his old man's advertising company and took a Navy ROTC scholarship to college instead. After serving his six years, he'd launched out on his own in the ad world. While he'd tackled the New York City job, he could still feel his father's influence breathing down his neck. The offer from San Francisco-based MC had put a whole country between him and the old man's far-reaching shadow.
And just that fast, inspiration hit.
As soon as he finished up here at Rosa Lounge, Jason would be on the red-eye to New York. By morning, he would be on Lauren Presley's doorstep for a face-to-face with her. If that baby was his, she would simply have to come to California.
Any possible rumors would be taken care of when he introduced her as his fianc e.
The icy January wind kept most people indoors. Normally Lauren would have been in her apartment in warm wooly socks, tending her plants. But the cold helped calm her nausea. So she worked on the roof, checking the winterizing on the community garden she'd started a couple of years ago.
Kneeling, she tucked the plastic tighter along the edges of the rooftop planter while roaring engines and horns announced that the Big Apple was waking up. The city in winter wore the neutral palette of an Andrew Wyeth painting, a world reduced to blacks and whites, grays and browns. Icy-cold concrete stung through her jeans as she knelt, a bitter breeze whipping off the East River. She huddled deeper into her wool coat. She flexed her numbed fingers inside her gardening gloves.
Her stomach fluttered from more than the baby.
She'd gotten a panicked call from her friend Stephanie informing her that her husband had let Jason know about the pregnancy via a photo taken at last week's New Year's party.
And now Jason was on his way to NYC.
No amount of cold air or gardening would stem the tide of nausea this time. Her world was totally falling apart. Jason was on his way to confront her about the baby she hadn't gotten around to informing him was due in five months, and oh, by the way, her business was all but in ruins.
Lauren sagged back against the concrete fountain, water frozen in the base, icicles dripping from the stone lion's mane. A week ago she'd learned her bookkeeper, Dave, had used her sick leave as an opportunity to embezzle half a million dollars from her fledgling graphic-design business. She'd only found out when she hired a temp bookkeeper to take over while Dave went "on vacation." Now they all knew he wouldn't be returning from whatever island haven he'd taken up residence at using her money. Authorities didn't hold out much hope of finding him—or her funds.
She rubbed a hand over the growing curve of her belly. A child completely dependent on her and she'd royally screwed up her life. What kind of mother would she make? A total coward, up here hiding.
Things had changed so much in a few months. She missed the color palette of spring and summer, but her artistic eye still appreciated the monochromatic stark-ness of a winter landscape.
The rooftop door creaked a second before a long shadow stretched over her. She knew before she looked. Jason had found her anyway. There was no more delaying this confrontation.
Lauren glanced over her shoulder and… She felt a shiver of awareness.
Jason's lean, looming presence added the final touch to the stark skyline, his swimmer's build, dark hair cut short, thicker along the top and just lifting in the harsh wind. He stood tall, immovable, uncompromising— physically and emotionally.
She turned away and tucked her gardening tools back in her bag. "Hello, Jason."
His footsteps grew louder, closer, and still he didn't speak.
"I guess the doorman told you I was up here," she babbled, her hands frantically busy.
He knelt beside her. "You should be more careful."
She inched away. "You shouldn't sneak up on people."
"What if it hadn't been me coming up here? That door creaks mighty damn loud and you were in another world."
"Okay, you're right. I was, uh, distracted." By his impending arrival, the baby on the way, and oh, yeah, she had an embezzler on her payroll. So much for her insistence she was ready to take on the world.
She could almost hear her parents' disapproval about everything in her life. Except for Jason. He was exactly the sort of man her socialite mother would pick for her, with his blue-blood lineage, fat bank account and good looks.
Hell, most any mom would be happy to have Jason Reagert as a son-in-law. But he was also stubborn and controlling and she'd fought too hard for her independence to risk it in a relationship with this man. No doubt that was why she'd succeeded in ignoring the attraction for the past months.
She clutched her bag to her chest. "What are you doing here? You could have just called."
"And you could have called." He looked at her stomach and back up again. "When I spoke with a friend of mine back here last night, he told me you've been working from home because you're not feeling well. Are you all right? Is the baby all right?"
And there it was. Her pregnancy news out there with a simple statement. No huge confrontation or shouting match like her parents would have had before—and after—their divorce. All the same, her fingers shook, so she hitched her bag over her shoulder and stood.
"Only morning sickness." She stuffed her hands in her pockets. "The doctor says I'm fine. I'm just more productive if I work from home. The worst is past."
"I'm glad to hear that."
The nausea had been debilitating for a couple of months. Entrusting so much of the office routine to others had been nerve-racking, but there hadn't been any other choice. Too bad it had cost her so much. "I made it back up to half days in the office last week."
"Are you sure you're ready? You look like you've lost weight." A protective gleam lit his eyes. He grabbed an iron chair and hauled it over to her.
Lauren glanced at him warily before sitting. "How much do you know about the pregnancy?"
"Does it matter?" He shrugged out of his trench coat and draped it over her shoulders.
The familiar scent of his aftershave mingled with his body warmth clinging to the fabric. Too tempting. She passed his coat back because she couldn't handle even one more obstacle in her life. Not now. "I guess not, as long as you do know."