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At five fifteen on a sunny April afternoon, Dalton Ames sat on a bench in a park near his Denver corporate offices and told himself he was making a big mistake.
He should have gotten some answers before he agreed to meet with her. He should have made her tell him why, exactly, she had contacted him out of the blue and just had to speak with him in person. Because, honestly. What good could possibly come of seeing her now?
None. He knew that.
And yet here he was, briefcase at his feet, stomach in knots. Waiting. Irresponsibly, illogically, ridiculously eager just for the sight of her.
It could go nowhere. He knew that. And yet
His racing thoughts trailed away to nothing as he spotted her approaching: Clara Bravo, more adorable than ever in a long white dress and a short jean jacket. Clara, with her shining sable hair, her tempting mouth so quick to smile. But she wasn't smiling now. Her expression was somber, her head tipped down. Clara.
And so very, very pregnant.
Seeing her so huge shocked him, though it shouldn't have. The detective he'd hired to find her back in early December, months after their summer romance, had reported that she was pregnant and engaged to marry the baby's father.
She glanced up and spotted him, those big eyes locking on him. Her soft mouth dropped openand then snapped resolutely shut. She hesitated on the path, but then stiffened her spine and kept on coming.
"Hello, Dalton." Her wonderful, slightly husky voice broke on his name.
He nodded. "Clara." His voice sounded calm. Reserved. It gave nothing away, which was as he'd intended. He took care not to glance down, not to ogle that big, round belly of hers. "It's good to see you," he lied.
It wasn't good. It hurt to see her. Even big as a house with some other guy's baby, she was much too appealing. He still wanted her. It turned a brutal knife inside him to have to look at her and know that she belonged to another man.
She lifted her left hand and nervously tucked a shining strand of dark brown hair behind her ear. No wedding ring. Odd.
And come on, it was too ridiculous, to pretend he didn't notice that giant belly. Stiffly, he said, "I see congratulations are in order
She kept her head up, those brown eyes unwavering. "Let's sit down, shall we?" Turning, she lowered herself to the bench, bracing an arm on the back of it to ease her way down.
He sank to the space beside her.
And then she drew in a big breath and started talking. Fast. "Please believe me. I don't want anything from you. I only think it's right that you know."
"Know?" He stared at her and wondered what in the world she could be babbling about.
She bobbed her head in a frantic little nod. "Yes. You have a right to know."
"Know what?" It came out as a threatening growl. He really needed to dial it back, but she
roused things in him. She made him feel things he didn't want to feel. Gruffness was his natural defense against such dangerous emotions.
And then she said, "I
got pregnant on the island, when we were together last year. This is your baby, Dalton."
His brain flickered, then reeled. "What did you just say?" He didn't mean to bark at her. But he must have.
Because she gasped and slid to the edge of the bench, as far from him as she could get without actually jumping up and racing away. He had to actively resist the imperative to grab her and drag her back closer to him. She repeated slowly, with care. "I said, it's your baby."
"By God. Yes, you did."
She pressed her lips together, sucked in a slow breath and aimed her chin high. "And, well, as you can see
" She put a hand on the hard, high swell of her belly. "I intend to keep this child, which is also your child."
It hit him again, like a boot to the solar plexus. She was saying it was his baby.
And she wasn't finished, either. "But of course I don't expect you just to take my word for it. Should you want proof, I'll be happy to cooperate with a paternity test as soon as the baby is born next month." A pause. He continued rudely gaping at her as she stumbled on. "And then, um, again, if you want nothing to do with this child, I'm fine with that, I
" Her voice wavered. But then she cleared her throat and forged on, "You don't have to worry about the baby's welfare. I have a supportive family and a large network of friends. Financially, I'm doing very well. So, after today, I won't bother you again. If you find you want to be involved, however much or little, well, that's something I'm open to, as we go along."
?" The ability to form a complete sentence seemed to have deserted him.
She rushed into the breach. "Um. Go along, yes. As we go along. I.look. I hate to do this to you." The big eyes filled. She gritted her teeth, blinked the moisture away. "I know you made it very clear, when we said goodbye on the island, that it was over, that we had an agreement and you wanted to stick to it, that you didn't want to see me anymore."
His eyeballs were suddenly dry as a pair of sunbaked stones. He blinked. "What? Wait a minute. That's not what I said. I said it wouldn't work between us, that I would only"
She whipped up a hand, palm out. "Look. Whatever. All I'm saying is I know this has to be a huge shock for you and I'm so sorry, for everything. For getting pregnant in the first place, although God knows, we were careful." Her hand found her belly again. She lowered her head, shook it slowly back and forth. "I don't know how it happened, honestly. But it did. And I know I should have told you sooner, so I'm sorry for not doing that, too. I'm sorry for
" Her head shot up. She threw up both hands and cried, "Well, for everything. I'm sorry if this messes up your life. I'm sorry, all right? Just
I don't know. I'm not sure what else there is to say."
There was a whole hell of a lot to say as far as he was concerned. "I thought you married the baby's father in December."
Those big eyes got even bigger. "How could you know that?"
Smooth, Ames. Real smooth. He was a banker, born, bred and raised, president and CEO of Ames Bank and Trust, which had been serving the people of Colorado for almost a century. They said he was distant and a little bit cold. But always fair and calm and in command. He didn't feel in command right at the moment. Clearly, he wasn't in command and could blurt out any damn thing if he didn't get a grip.
He cast about for a good lie to tell her, but there really wasn't one that had a chance of flying. So he loosened his tie and settled for the truth. "I hired a detective to find you."
She gasped. "A detective?"
"That's what I said, yes. The detective told me that you live in Justice Creek, that you were getting married a few days before Christmasand that several different sources had informed him that you were pregnant by your groom, Ryan McKellan. I remembered Ryan, of course, remembered what you'd told me about him." She made a soft, strangled sound, but then only gaped at him. He demanded, "You don't remember?"
"That you told me about your friend Ryan on the island. You mentioned him more than once." Her best friend, she'd called the guy, twice. Both times she'd caught herself and blushed sweetly and said she was sorry for breaking their agreement to live in the moment and leave their "real" lives out of the time they were sharing. He'd shrugged and said she had nothing to apologize for, though really, he hadn't enjoyed the way her expression softened with fondness when she said that other guy's name. "That was kind of a shocker, to get the detective's report and find out that you and your good buddy Ryan were a whole lot more than friends."
"But we weren't!" she insisted on a rising inflection. And then she pressed her hands to her soft cheeks, as if to cool their sudden heat. "I don't get it. I
Oh, Dalton." Now she looked hurt. She whispered on a torn sigh, "You put a detective on me?"
He felt like a complete jerk and muttered defensively, "I wanted to find you. It seemed the simplest way."
Her soft lips trembled. "Wanted to find me, why?"
couldn't seem to make myself forget you."
Her expression softenedbut then, almost instantly, she stiffened again. "You're serious? You couldn't forget me?"
"No. I couldn't."
"But then what about your?"
"Wait a minute." He'd just realized he'd been feeling like a douche-bag when, come to think of it, he wasn't any worse than she was. "How did you find me?"
"Well, I looked you up online and
" Her shoulders sagged. "All right. I see your point. You found me and I found you. What does it matter how? What does any of the rest of it matter?"
She had it right. It didn't matter, not to him, anyway. The baby mattered. His baby.
The baby changed everything. He demanded, "So, what about your husband, Ryan? Does he know that the baby isn't his?"
"He's, um, not my husband."
Could he have heard that right? "Not your?"
"Not my husband. No. We decided not to go through with the wedding, after all."
"You're telling me you're not married." He tried to take in the enormity of that. All these months without a word from her, even though she was having his baby. Having his baby while planning to marry that other guyand then not marrying that other guy, after all.
"Uh-uh. Being married just
isn't who we are together, Ryan and me."
"Together? You and he are together?" It came out in a dark, angry rumble.
"No, not together. Not in that way. We're together in a friend way."
"You live with him?"
"Of course not." She looked insulted. "I said we're friends." He didn't need to hear another word about the guy she'd almost married. But she told him more anyway. "Ryan hated the idea of the baby not having a dad."
"Hold it. What are you saying? The baby damn well does have a dad. I'm the dad."
"Dalton, you don't have to get so angry."
"I'm. Not. Angry."
She stared at him, wearing a stricken look. He felt like the overbearing ass she no doubt considered him. And then she said, with measured calm, "I'm just saying he was only trying to help me, that's all. But you're right. Ryan isn't the baby's father. Because, well, you are." And then, out of nowhere, she pushed herself to her feet. "And I think I've said what I came here to say."
"Wait a minute." He glared up at her. "You're leaving?"
"You can't leave yet. We're not through here. Sit back down."
She ignored his command and pulled a card from the pocket of her jacket. "Here. Address, phone numbers. It's all there. In case you
I mean, you know, should you choose to get in touch with me after this."
"After this? But we're not finished."
"Maybe you're not, Dalton. But I am. This wasn't easy. I've had enough for one day and I want to go home."
"Please. Take the card."
He felt at a disadvantage, sitting there while she hovered above him. So he stood. She shoved the card at him again. He gave in and took it. Not that he needed it. He knew where she lived and he had all her numbers. The detective had provided all that. And Dalton had held on to the information, though he'd told himself he would never make use of it.
They stared at each other. He needed to keep her there until he could manage to collect his scattered wits. But he just wasn't dealing. His usually sharp mind felt dull as a rusty blade.
She said, "Well, goodbye, then."
His knees feel strangely rubbery. A baby. It was his baby she was having. Not that other guy's. His baby. And she wasn't married, after all.
And for all those months, he hadn't had a clue. Because she never bothered to tell him. Until now.
He couldn't decide if he was furious with heror just desperate to know that she and the baby were both all right. She did look a little tired. There were shadows beneath those amazing eyes.
He asked, "Are you okay? The baby.?"
"Fine. Truly. We're both fineand look. You just give me a call, anytime."
"Give you a call," he repeated numbly.
"Yeah. Whenand ifyou're ready to, um, talk it over."
"But didn't I just say I want to talk it over now?" She gave a fierce little shake of her head. "Not now.
"I just.I need a little space, okay?"
"I have to go, Dalton."
And with that, she turned and left him standing there. He wanted to go after her, to grab her and pull her back.
But he didn't.
He just stood there by the bench, his mouth hanging open, watching her walk away.
Telling Dalton Ames that she was having his baby? Hardest thing Clara had ever done.
He'd seemed so angry. So stiff and pulled-together, wearing a gorgeous, perfectly tailored suit and Italian shoes, looking like the stuffed-shirt older brother of the amazing, tender, attentive man she'd known for those magical two weeks on the island. She'd barely kept herself from demanding, Who are you and what have you done with the Dalton I knew?
Twice during the drive home from Denver, Clara pulled off the road, certain she was about to throw up. The baby, not happy at all with the adrenaline cocktail surging through Mommy's system, kept kicking her. Somehow, though, she managed to make it home to her sweet little blue, maroon-trimmed Victorian on Park Drive in Justice Creek without losing her lunch.
It was after seven when she walked in the door. She knew she should eat, so she heated up some leftovers, poured a glass of juice and forced down a few bites of yesterday's chicken and a mouthful or two of seasoned rice. That was all she could take. She dumped the rest, rinsed the plate and stood at the sink staring out at her side yard, knowing she really, really needed to talk to a friend.
She'd kept it all to herself for much too long now. Even though her relationship with Dalton had been nothing but a foolish fantasy, it had only seemed right that she should face him, let him know that there would be a child and she was keeping it, before discussing the matter with anyone else.
So okay. She'd done what was right.
And now she needed support. She was calling in a good friend and telling all.
She considered calling Ryan. He'd been right there for her when she had no idea what to do next. He'd tried so hard to help her.
But come on. The last thing Rye needed now was her crying on his shoulder about some guy he'd never even met. Especially after everything she'd already put him through.
No. At a time like this, a woman needed a girlfriend. Her closest girlfriend.
So Clara called her favorite cousin Rory, aka Her Highness Aurora Bravo-Calabretti. Rory might be a Mon-tedoran princess by birth, but at heart she was totally down-to-earth, someone you could trust with your deepest, saddest secrets. Rory lived with Ryan's older brother, Walker, at Walker's ranch, the Bar-N.
Once she'd made the call, Clara went out and sat on the front porch to wait.
Twenty minutes later, Rory pulled up to the curb. She jumped right out, ran around the front of her SUV and hurried up the front walk. "Clara? What is it, darling? Are you okay?"
Clara rose and held out her arms. Rory went into them. They hugged good and tight, Clara's big belly pressed hard against Rory's flat one, and Clara whispered, "Ice cream. Chocolate Chunk Gooey Brownie."
Rory said, "I'm in."
So Clara led her inside and dished up the treat. They sat at the breakfast nook table. They'd each polished off half a bowlful before Rory asked, "So?"
And Clara took another creamy, chunky chocolaty bite, savoring the goodness of it, getting another shot of the comfort a girl can only get from a killer dessert, before she confessed, "Today I told my baby's father that he's going to be a dad."
Rory stopped with a bite of ice cream halfway to her mouth. She dropped the spoon back in her bowl. It clattered against the side. "Get off the phone."
"I did. I really did."
"Awful. It was awful. He was like some stranger. It was so bizarre. I kept wanting to ask him what he'd done with the man I knewor thought I knew."
Rory pushed back her chair and circled the table to kneel at Clara's feet. "Give me your hands." She took them and gave Clara's fingers a comforting squeeze. "You are not only my favorite cousin in the whole worldyou are the kindest, warmest, most supportive, loving friend around. Plus, you're totally hot."