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"The tabloids are at it again." Megan Sutherland dropped the newspaper on the kitchen table in front of Xavier, and then because she couldn't resist, she bent and hugged him from behind, reveling in the warmth of his neck against her lips, his subtle custom-blended cologne, the firm pecs beneath her fingertips and the thick dark hair tickling her cheek.
As always, his nearness sent a shimmer of happiness through her. Love swelled in her chest and hunger settled heavily in her womb. One of these days the words she fought so hard to contain were going to burst free, but today she bit her tongue because he wasn't ready to hear them. Nor was he ready to hear her news.
A sobering thought. She forced herself to back away and head for the coffeepot to get a jump start on the chaotic day she had scheduled.
"Give a guy a few million bucks and a perfume empire and the tabloid reporters get creative. Funny, isn't it?" she called over her shoulder and waited for the sexy chuckle that never failed to make her knees weak. But the kitchen remained silent as she filled her cup. Eerily silent.
Surprised, she turned. "Did you hear what I said?"
"I heard." His tight voice and the intent look on his face as he stared at the folded page made her pulse flutter. Then his gaze met hers. The resolve in his green eyes filled her stomach with lead.
"They're lying. Aren't they, Xavier?" Her last words, forced through a tightening throat, sounded a bit strident.
Dizziness swamped her. Her fingers stung. She looked down to see hot coffee sloshing over the rim of the delicate china and dripping to the floor. She set the cup on the counter, grabbed a towel and bent to mop up the mess, taking a moment to gather her composure. She probably shouldn't be drinking coffee anyway, but until the doctor confirmed
No. She knew without a doubt that she carried Xavier's baby.
She slowly rose on rubbery legs. "But the article says the blonde is your fiancée, that you're marrying her one year from today."
"That is correct."
Megan's body went numb, paralyzed with shock. It took several seconds before she could wheeze air into her lungs. "What about us?"
"This has nothing to do with our relationship, Megan. My pending marriage has been arranged for years."
Feeling slowly returned to her limbs as though icicles were splintering through her veins in painful shards. "Years?" she squeaked. "You've been engaged for years? And you didn't tell me?"
"It was irrelevant. Our affair was never intended to be anything other than casual. You knew that."
Casual. Being crushed beneath a falling horse would hurt less. "I know in the beginning we agreed no strings. But
Sometime over the past six months she'd fallen in love with Xavier Alexandre, with his old-fashioned manners, his worldly sophistication and his second-to-none bedroom skills. And now she wanted more than just an affair to remember. She wanted forever. With him. She'd believed he felt the same since he spent every free moment with her.
"There is no 'but.' It is my duty to marry Cecille."
Cecille. Hearing her name from his lips was like the crack of a bullwhip.
"Do you love her?" Don't ask if you don't want to know. Dread over his response tensed her abdominal muscles.
"My feelings are not important."
"They are to me."
"It is a business transaction. Nothing more."
A business transaction. How could the most passionate man she'd ever encountered sound so emotionless about something as important, as intimate, as marriage? "Are you sleeping with her?"
"Megan, this need not concern you."
"Need not concern me! Since you've been in my bed almost every night for the past six months, I think I have a right to know if you're sleeping with someone else. Are you?"
"I have had no other women since I met you. Does that please you, ma petite concourante?"
His little competitor. She used to love it when he called her that. But it didn't make her smile now. She should be comforted by his admission that he hadn't been hopping from her bed to this blonde woman's. But it wasn't enough.
"You're going to go through with it, then? The marriage?"
"It is a matter of honor."
"Honor? Where was your honor when you were making me believe we had a future together that involved more than me riding you and your horses?"
His eyebrows slammed downward in a formidable scowl. "Have I ever made promises to you that I did not keep?"
"No. But I thought
" She twisted the towel in her hands. "I hoped you and I would get married. Eventually. And have a family."
"Did I not tell you in the beginning that I would never offer marriage?"
With pain choking her, she couldn't force a word out. She could only nod.
"And I will not have an illegitimate child. That is why we have always used protection."
But she couldn't tolerate birth control pills and condoms weren't fail-proof, as she'd learned firsthand. She fought the urge to shield her tummy. He had a child on the way. He just didn't know it yet. She'd only put the clues together yesterday and taken the pregnancy test this morning before her run. She'd been planning to tell him tonight during an intimate dinner for two. When she found the right words.
But everything had changed now, and there were no words that could make this situation right. Not if he was going to marry someone else.
Her pride gave her a kick in the pants. "Well, forgive me for getting the impression you might have reconsidered when you bought this house bordering your estate and set me up in it. And when you've followed me to every city on the Grand Prix circuit so you could share my bed."
"And to watch you ride my horsesthree very expensive investments. I have enjoyed our time together, Megan, and will continue to savor each moment we share until the very last."
"When you leave me for her." Indignation prickled her scalp. "Your fiancée might have something to say about that."
"She has no say in my private affairs before the wedding. As I have stated, the marriage is a business arrangement. Neither Cecille nor I are going into this with any illusions of something as transient as love."
Megan's love didn't feel transient at all. It felt like a big gaping hole in her heartone that would follow her to the grave.
Xavier folded his napkin with crisp precision, rose and approached her. She couldn't bear to look at his aristocratically handsome face. More specifically, she couldn't handle the absence of the warmth and tenderness that were usually in his beautiful emerald eyes when he focused on her. At that moment he looked every inch the ruthless businessman he was rumored to be. Certainly not the man she'd believedmistakenly, apparentlyhad fallen in love with her, the man who treated her like she was someone precious and wonderful and who didn't expect her to change one iota of her person to be with him.
An immaculately fitted Italian suit outlined his lean, tall form and the powerful muscles he conditioned when they worked out side by side in the gym he'd installed in the spare bedroom for her. He had already dressed to board the helicopter that would fly him to Parfums Alexandre's corporate offices in Nice the moment she left for the stables on his estate. No traffic jams for him. He simply flew over them all and landed on the roof of his office building.
Only this time when he left she wouldn't spend the hours eagerly awaiting his return or daydreaming of the sensual delights they'd share in bed tonight. Instead she'd be worrying about whether he was with her. The woman he intended to marry. The woman who wasn't casual or temporary.
He released an exasperated breath. "Megan, there is no need to be melodramatic. Our relationship will continue unchanged. We will have the next twelve months together."
"You expect me to sleep with you while you're engaged to someone else?" The idea seemed unconscionable. "And then what? You'll marry her? And forget all about me? About us and what we've shared? Like discarding an out-of-style suit?"
"I will never forget you, mon amante" He lifted his hand toward her cheek.
The gentle stroke of his fingertips made her shiver. Unable to stomach her traitorous body's response, she backed up a step. Inhaling slowly, then exhaling, she willed the fuzzy-headed this-can't-be-happening feeling away and tried to gather her thoughts.
"What if I asked you to choose between her and me?"
The inflexible word crushed her hopes and dreams. The idea of her manthe one she adored immeasurablymaking love to her while planning to marry someone else made her want to howl and throw things. And she wasn't the tantrum-throwing type. He might as well rip out her heart and grind it beneath his custom-made Italian shoes.
She would not be the other woman. She would not beg for his attention or settle for the crumbs his wife allowed him to toss her way.
And what about the baby she carried?
What of her career?
Everything she'd counted on had been completely upset by his engagement. Panic clawed at her. She needed to think, to plan, to try to find a way out of this mess, and she couldn't do that with Xavier watching her.
She tossed the towel aside. "I have to get to the stables."
"I can't talk to you about this right now. I have horses and clients waiting for me." "Tonight, then."
She barely managed not to snort in disbelief. Did he honestly believe she'd come home after work and casually share dinner the way they always did? Dinner. Then bed. Then lie in his arms all night and think about her? No way.
She raced into the bedroom. The fact that he didn't come after her spoke volumes. She shed her running clothes and yanked on her riding attire. Her hair was damp and she probably reeked of sweat from her run, but she didn't care. A shower was the least of her worries. She stomped into her boots.
Her cell phone blinked on its charger, indicating a new voice mail message. Unable to deal with whoever had called now, she snatched up the device and shoved it into her jacket pocket without checking caller ID.
She bolted from what until this morning had been her paradise, a fairy-tale cottage, part of the fairy-tale life she and Xavier had created. She heard the helicopter's blades in the distance. Xavier had already left, as if this daythe one where he'd shattered her dreams and wrecked her lifewere as routine as any other.
She'd sprinted half the distance to the stable before stopping beneath a treeand out of sight of the rising chopperto gather her shattered control. Struggling to catch her breath, she leaned against the rough bark and wiped the moisture from her face. Tears, not sweat. And she never cried. Never. Tears were useless and they never fixed anything. But, damn him, Xavier had driven her to tears for the first time since hearing about the plane crash that had killed her family.
She took big gulping breaths, but she couldn't seem to stem the flow. She was pregnant. And the only man she'd ever allowed herself to love, the father of her baby, was going to marry someone else.
He had made it clear he wouldn't want this child.
Given the circumstancesthe new circumstancesshe didn't know.
Part of her relished the idea of holding the proof of her love for Xavier in her arms. But her logical side argued that children and the Grand Prix circuit were not a winning combination. Only a few riders juggled parenthood and competition successfully, and they did so with the help of nannies and understanding spouses. Could she make it work without Xavier's help?
She worked crazy long hours, often seven days a week, and the travel was grueling. What kind of mother could she be with that schedule? Her child would suffer without a second parent to fill the gaps. Single parenthood would be nothing like the merry band of gypsies she, her brother, mother and father had been before the crash.
Continuing the pregnancy would be incredibly complicated. Even if she booted Xavier's gorgeous butt and his horses to the curb, how would she hide her condition from him if she stayed on the continent? She was almost two months pregnant and it wouldn't be long before she'd start to show.
Would he try to talk her into an abortion or fight her for custody on principle? This was Xavier's baby, and what Xavier owned Xavier kept. Would he feel as territorial about an unplanned love child?
It didn't matter. Megan wouldn't risk having her child raised by his wifesomeone who might not want it, love and cherish it. Someone who might resent the hell out of the onerous duty thrust upon her.
Been there. Done that. After her family had been killed, her childhood hadn't been the greeting card kind. Even though her uncle had taken her in, he'd made sure she always knew she was an unwelcome burden. An outsider. That woman's child.
And what about her cottagethe house Xavier had bought for her? Even if he'd let her, she couldn't stay there after he married someone else. Especially since her place had a clear view of the driveway to his estate. She'd see his wife coming and going. And that would destroy her.
She bent over double, hands on her knees. What are you going to do?
Panic tightened like a noose around her neck. She had to focus on the present rather than worry about what might happen months from now. Deal with today. Then the rest.