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'You don't know me, but I'm having your baby.'
Was it possible for your blood to stop flowing before you were dead? Dominic Pirelli believed it, the way his veins suddenly clamped shut and his blood seemed to congeal in a heart that had itself long ago turned to stone. And even if he'd wanted to slam the phone down in denial, he was incapable of movement, one hundred per cent of his energy concentrated and distilled down, focused on just one tiny word.
And then the need to breathe kicked in and he dragged in air, and slowly his pulse resumed, pounding out a message in his temples, echoing his disbelief. It was impossible! It didn't matter what the doctor had tried to tell him this morning. It didn't matter what this woman was telling him now. It had to be impossible.
' having your baby.'
The words played over and over in his brain, defying logic, making no sense. He dragged in air, trying to reestablish a foothold in a day gone mad.
This was not the way he was used to operating. On a normal day it took a lot to blindside Dominic Pirelli. Many a business competitor had tried to gain an advantage over him and been unsuccessful, washed away in the wake he left behind as he forged ahead with his own plans. Many a woman had tried to tie the billionaire investor down and failed, swept aside like so many brightly coloured petals on a fast-flowing stream.
On a normal day, nothing happened in his life that he didn't professionally desire or personally sanction.
But today had ceased being a normal day one short, cataclysmic hour ago.
When the clinic had called with the news.
A mistake, he'd first assumed.
It was so many years ago and someone had clearly pulled the wrong name from its files; someone had clearly rung the wrong number. And he'd argued exactly that, only to be told that the only mistake had occurred some three months back, when the wrong embryo had somehow been put in the wrong woman. And even through the torrent of apologies, he'd still refused to believe it could be true.
And then the phone had rung a second time and a woman's voice uttered the words that turned a horrific concept into chilling reality.
'I'm having your baby.'
He sank heavily into his chair, wheeling it around so that he could see somethinganythingother than the nightmare that consumed his thoughts and vision. But the view he knew should be there, the picture-perfect view over a glittering Sydney Harbour, the yachts and ferries zipping their way beneath the Harbour Bridge and between the park-lined shores, was lost to him in a blur of incredulity. He squeezed his eyes shut and pinched his nose so hard that fireworks shot through his closed lids, but still nowhere near hard enough to blot out the anguish or the pain.
This could not be happening! Not this way.
It was never supposed to happen this way!
'Mr Pirelli ' The voice resumed. Hesitant. Shaky. Almost as if the caller were as shocked as he was. Not a chance. 'Are you still there?'
He exhaled. Long and loud, not caring how it sounded down the line. He didn't care about anything right now, least of all about sounding civil. 'Why are you doing this?' he heard himself say. 'What's in it for you?'
He heard a gasp, a muffled cry and almost felt sorry for speaking his mind. Almost. But he'd only spoken the truth. Experience told him that people rarely did anything if not motivated by profit.
'I just thought, given the circumstances, you should be informed.'
A pause. 'I'm sorry. I can't help how you see it. I just wanted to talk to you. To see if we can find some way through this mess.'
This mess. At least she had that right. 'You think there's some way through this? You think there's some simple solution that can be plucked from the air? Do you have fairies in the bottom of your garden, or simply in your head?'
He expected she'd hang up. He'd hoped she would, if only to terminate a conversation he didn't want to havewasn't equipped to have.
Because he wasn't sure he could hang up first. He was no more equipped to close off the chance ofwhat exactly?the chance of having a child that had long since died, along with his marriage?
But there was no telling click at the end of the line to momentarily assuage his pain and relieve what little guilt he felt. No sound but a pause that grew heavier and weightier by the second. Until he found himself inexplicably awaiting her response. What was she thinking? What did she really want? Fifteen plus years building the biggest business empire Australia had seen had left him woefully unprepared for anything like this.
'I know this has been a shock,' she said softly. 'I understand.'
'Do you? I doubt it.'
'This is hard for me too!' Her voice sounded more strident, more pained. 'Do you really think I was overjoyed to discover that I was pregnant with your child?'
His child? The realisation slammed into him like a blow to the gut. No mere concept; this woman was carrying his child. His and Carla's. The child she'd been so desperate to have. The child she'd been unable to conceive. Even success through their last resort, IVF, had eluded her, cycle after futile cycle. He put a hand to his brow, felt the shock of events thunder in the beat of blood at his temples, tasted the bitter taste of bile in the back of his throat.
And yet this womanthis strangerhad succeeded where Carla had failed so very many times.
Who was this woman that she could turn his life upside down? Who was she that she could stir up the ghosts of his past? Who gave her the right to mess with his life?
All he knew was that he couldn't do this over the phone. He had to meet her. Had to deal with this face to face.
He tugged on his tie, undid his top button, but still the room felt sticky and overheated. And still his voice, when it came, felt like gravel in his throat. It sounded worse. 'What did you say your name was again?'
'It's Angie. Angie Cameron.'
'Look, Miss Cameron'
'It's Mrs, actually, but just Angie is fine.'
Of course. He pushed back in his chair. She might sound like some nervous teenager over the phone, but she would have to be married and for some years to be undergoing fertility treatment. 'Look, Mrs Cameron,' he said, ignoring her invitation for informality when he was still having trouble believing her story, 'this isn't something I can discuss over the phone.'
He sucked air into his lungs and shook his head. God, did she have to sound like some kind of therapist? If she was so upset about carrying his child, then why didn't she rant and scream and rail about injustice in the world like he wanted to? Didn't she realise his world was tearing apartthe world he'd taken years to rebuild?
He could so not do this!
'We should meet,' he said somehow through near-gritted teeth as he wheeled around in his chair, his finger resting over a button on the phone that would connect him to Simone. 'As soon as possible. I'll put you back to my PA. She'll organise the details.'
If she had anything else to say, he didn't hear it before he punched that button and slammed the receiver down, lungs burning as if he'd just run ten kilometres along the cliffs, his brow studded with sweat. Simone could deal with it. Simone was good with tidying up after him while he worked out what came next.
And what did come next? What followed the disbelief?
Anger, he recognised, as the blood pounded loud in his ears and fire burned hot in his gut. Right now anger boiled up inside him like lava looking for an exitlava ready to burst him apart like a volcano set to erupt.
Because the impossible had happened.
And somebody was going to pay!
Angie set the receiver down, her hand still trembling, her cheeks damp with tears. But what had she expected? That the man would welcome the news she was carrying his child as if it was some kind of miracle?
Hardly. She swiped at her cheeks with the back of her hand, pulled a tissue from a box and blew her nose. After all, it hadn't felt like any kind of miracle when she'd been given the news. Far from it.
Still, did he have to sound so angry? Anyone would think it was all her fault.
She put a guilty hand over her still flat stomach, home to the child she'd never really wanted, the child she'd only agreed to have because Shayne had so desperately wanted a son, the child that had turned out not to be his.
Maybe it was her fault.
Unnatural, Shayne had called her. A real woman would want babies, he'd said, saving the most hurtful for when they had to cancel a holiday in order to scrape together the money for the procedures because he'd managed to get a subsidised place in the Carmichael Clinic, the best fertility clinic in Australia.
A real woman wouldn't need IVF to get pregnant.
And then, when finally the IVF had succeeded and she was pregnant and it looked like Shayne would have the child he'd wanted so desperately, the clinic had called with the news of their terrible mix-up and she was a failure once again.
Because a real woman wouldn't want to carry another man's baby. Because a real woman would take the clinic up on their generous offer to fix it.
Maybe Shayne was right.
Maybe this was her punishment for not being a real woman. Cursed with a child she'd never really wanted and that wasn't even hers, and yet unable to bring herself, as Shayne had so eloquently put it, to fix it.
He'd made it sound so simple, like taking out the rubbish or tossing away old clothes. But this wasn't about a bag of trash. She wasn't carrying around a bag of old clothes. Whether or not she'd wanted it, there was a baby growing inside her belly. A life. Someone else's child.
And after all the effort the clinic had gone to, all the tests and injections and procedures and hand-holding to get her pregnant, they thought they could just turn around and somehow make it better?
It was never going to happen.
Besides, it wasn't only her decision to make. Not when there was a couple out there who'd put their heart and soul into creating this new life. Not when this child was rightfully theirs. Whatever happened now, whatever they decided, at the very least they deserved to know of this baby's existence.
She squeezed her eyes shut as her fingers curled into the denim of her shorts. Poor baby, to end up with her of all people, the woman who never really wanted a child in the first place, the woman who'd only agreed in order to save her marriage.
What a joke!
'I'm sorry, baby. But we'll meet your dad soon. Maybe even your mum too. They'll want you, I'm sure.' And if they didn't?
A solitary tear slid down her cheek as she thought back to the phone call, remembering the deep and damning tones of the man's voice, as if she'd been to blame for visiting upon him some momentous disaster. Then again, it probably felt like some momentous disaster to him right now. She'd gone through the same stages herself. The shock. The disbelief. The sheer bewilderment that came with discovering that a mistake so fundamental could have occurred in a medical facility, a place that was supposed to specialize in making dreams come true, not in creating nightmares.
And then she'd borne the full brunt of Shayne's reactions. He'd gone from shock to fury in the space of a heartbeat. Fury that the baby he'd been bragging about to family and friends for a month wasn't his at all. Fury with the clinic for messing with his plans. Fury that had changed direction and headed straight for her when she'd refused point-blank to have the abortion the clinic had offered and that he'd demanded.
Oh, yes, she understood full well how shell-shocked Mr Pirelli would be feeling right now. But for all his aggravation, for all his strident accusation, he could have hung up on her. He could have simply denied the child was his.
But he had taken her call and he had agreed to meet her tomorrow. And right now that was the best she could bequeath to the tiny baby growing deep inside herthe chance for it to be with its real parents, the people who had gone through hell and back to create it, the people who had first rights to this child.
A car slowed outside. She glanced up at the clock on the wall above her head, saw that it was almost six and for just a moment imagined it must be Shayne home from the foundry, and for just a moment panicked that she hadn't started dinner yet.
Before a pain still jagged and raw ripped through her as she remembered.
Shayne wasn't coming home any more.
She was alone.
The Darling Harbour boardwalk was crowded and congested with holidaymakers taking videos and eating ice creams, vying for space with performers busking for spare change. Seagulls squawked both overhead and underfoot, fighting each other for crumbs, while a reproduction sailing ship spewed a hundred excited tourists back onto the wharf.
Dominic sighed, feeling out of place as he and Simone waited near the designated meeting spot and half wishing his PA had chosen somewhere less public and more private for this meeting, but then the crowds were apparently half the attraction. Keep it informal, Simone had suggested. On neutral territory. Away from his lawyer's offices, which might give the impression he was ready to broker some kind of deal. Away from the Pirelli building where his wealth was obvious as soon as you stepped into the stunning marble lobby. This Mrs Cameron might have pretended to be making some kind of altruistic gesture, but he had no proof of that. There was no point putting temptation right in front of her.
Simone had a point, he'd conceded, catching a whiff of her expensive perfume amidst the salt and popcorn-tinged air. It was her favourite, he recognised, the one he'd given her a bottle of last Christmas. It suited her.