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Rowan Carmichael faltered slightly as she stepped into the minimalist lobby of the small boutique hotel. She hadn't realised it was so exclusive. Even though she was well dressed, well enough to look as if she belonged here, she felt as though everyone must surely be able to see under her skin to the very heart of her, that beat so unsteadily. It had been so long since she'd been in a place like this. Another lifetime, another woman. She should have picked a more down-at-heel hotel. This kind of hushed luxuriousness reminded her of too much and made the skin on the back of her neck prickle.
She was completely oblivious to the several appreciative looks she drew, with her dark red hair and flawless creamy skin, which contrasted with her ever so slightly awkward grace as she moved.
Her expressive full mouth tightened as she looked for a seat, willing herself not to let the rising panic overwhelm her. She couldn't think of the past now. It was gone, and with it Her step faltered again as a slicing pain ripped through her, stunning her with its intensity, with its rawness, its newness
even though it was old. And she felt olda lot older than her twenty-seven years.
She found an empty seat and sank into gratefully. Within moments a waiter had come to take her order for Earl Grey tea. She sat back and crossed her legs, taking a deep breath. She had to get it together. Had to be in control and above all calm.
She would have to discuss with a solicitor in less than ten minutes how she could best contact the husband she'd walked away from two years ago
and her baby. That slicing pain gripped her again, and she was made aware of how tenuous her control was. She needed time to gather herself. Perhaps she'd been silly, scheduling the appointment so soon; she was literally just off the train. This was the first time she'd been out in public again in two years. In the busy, heaving metropolis of London. Somewhere she'd truly never expected to be ever again.
No. She couldn't think like that. She'd be fine. After all, hadn't she been through so much worse?
This was the first day of the rest of her life. A new page, a new chapter.
A new beginning. And perhaps
A tiny alien bird of hope fluttered in her chest. Perhaps another chance at happiness? Even though in truth she'd had precious little happiness in her life so far
Just then her attention was taken by a little boy, who was running and fell headlong at her feet on the marble floor. With instinctive and unquestioning swiftness Rowan was out of her seat and bending to lift the boy gently, her hands under his arms, a reassuring smile on her face.
'It's okay, sweetheart. I don't think you've really hurt yourself, have you? You look like a very brave boy.'
He stood unsteadily on chubby legs, his face veering between crying and not crying, a lip wobbling. He was adorable. Dark blond hair, olive skin and huge eyes
they were the colour of violets. Unusual and distinctive.
Too unusual and distinctive.
Shock slammed into Rowan like a punch in the gut. They were, in fact, the exact unique shade of violet that looked back at her in her own mirror every day. With that thought came a surge of something so instinctive, so primal, so inexplicable Rowan felt the world flip over and right itself again at an angle.
She held onto the boy. He'd obviously decided against crying, and looked at her guilelessly, his mouth cracking into a huge grin, showing tiny baby teeth. He rubbed his forehead and babbled something unintelligible, but she didn't hear him. The shock was so intense that she couldn't breathe.
This couldn't be him
Had she dreamt of this moment for so long that she was hallucinating?
That was it. And perhaps arriving back like this was too much. Perhaps
But as she looked into his face, those eyes, she knew rationally it couldn't be possible. Yet her heart told another story, every instinct clamouring loudly.
She started to feel slightly desperate. Was this going to happen every time she saw a boy his age? Surely someone had to see her, had to know? Had to take him away from her because she didn't think she would be able to move ever again. Or let him go.
Black-shod feet had appeared behind the boy. A man. There was a blur of movement and she had a sense of his size, his magnetism, even just in that quick moment as he bent down to pick the little boy up. His scent washed over her. It was familiar. Her heart had already stopped beating. Blood froze in her veins. Her hands dropped.
A coolly cultivated deep voice came from far above her head. The man spoke with a slight accent that was barely noticeable '
need eyes in the back of your head, they move so fast
She couldn't believe what she was hearing, or seeing. He was tall, so tall that even when Rowan stood fullyshe didn't know howhe towered over her own not inconsiderable height. He was so sinfully handsome that her brain seized exactly the way it had when she had seen him for the first time.
Nearly three years ago.
This couldn't be happening. This was too, too cruel. Life couldn't be this harsh. And yet she knew well that it could.
He was still talking. And then abruptly he stopped, and the warm smile faded. Dark blond brows drew together over piercingly light blue eyes. The colour of blue ice. They pierced all the way through to Rowan's heart and soul, ripping her open, laying her bare to the myriad expressions crossing his face: the shock of recognition, disbelief
and then something much more potent. Disgust, anger
Rowan felt her mouth move as if to speak. But nothing came out. Everything seemed to hurtle around them in fast forward, but they were cocooned in an invisible bubble. Suspended in time. She looked at the little boy held high in his arms, and that was her downfall. She felt as if her heart would explode. It was all too much. She had one coherent thought before she slid into a dead faint at her husband's feet: my baby.
Isandro Vicario Salazar stood at the window of the bedroom in the suite that he'd carried Rowan upstairs to just a short time before. He looked at the distinctive telecom tower in the near distance, the bumper-to-bumper traffic in the streets down below, and saw none of it. His eyes were narrowed.
Rowan Carmichael. Rowan Salazar. His wife.
His mouth twisted into an even thinner line. His errant wife. The wife who had walked out on him and abandoned her own baby just hours after the birth because she hadn't been ready to deal with it. A drumbeat of rage, barely contained, beat under the surface of his skin. In his blood.
Stunning him with its force. That day he'd left her to rest after the birth, and returned some hours lateronly to find her gone. He'd not laid eyes on her from that moment to this. He still reeled with the shock of seeing her. He reeled with the torrent of emotions that seeing her had evoked within him emotions he'd suppressed long ago, that day, when she'd revealed her true nature and had shown him how unbelievably duped he had allowed himself to become. But not a hint of his inner emotions showed on his face even now.
A faint sound from the bed made him tense, and slowly he turned around.
Rowan waited a moment before opening her eyes. It was something she'd got used to in the past couple of years. A moment before reality rushed in, a moment to take stock, do a body-check, feel the sensations, feel if there was pain present
feel if she was well. But this time, as the muted sounds of car horns and traffic came from just outside, albeit a long way down, she tensed. The previous moments rushed back. The last thing she cared about right now was physical pain or if she felt well.
Her eyes flew open and there he was. It hadn't been a mirage. Her husband stood with his back to the window, hands deep in pockets of what she knew would be superbly crafted bespoke Italian cloth. Like his shirt and his jacket. The clothes moulded to his form, hugging every hard contour, emphasising every part of his tall, broad-shouldered and powerful body. Exactly how she remembered
but even more devastating in the flesh.
She knew on some level that it was the cushion of shock that allowed her to be so coolly objective. He was, if anything, even more handsome. Although in fairness handsome was too trite a word, too pretty. He was altogether too male for a word like handsome. And he was right here in front of her, living, breathing
not a figment of her imagination. The exquisite pain of seeing him again when she knew well what he must think of her was mercifully not allowed to penetrate too deeply.
' he drawled with a sardonic edge, 'you were obviously shocked to run into me. Surprising, really, considering this is my hotel.'
Rowan felt the numbness fade, the protective shock starting to shatter. His hotel? Since when had he owned a hotel in London? Even though he'd had to do a lot of business here, he'd never hidden his antipathy for the place. And how had she unwittingly chosen this hotel
out of a million others?
She'd quite literally come back and walked directly into the lion's denlike an industrious ant following the scent of a familiar pheromone.
How had she got up here to this room?
And then she remembered. It was too joyful and painful to bear, slicing through the shock and opening a raw wound. Her baby, her son
she'd seen him, held him. It hadbeen him. She hadn't conjured him up. That knowledge was still too much for her to cope with fully; she knew that. Her brain would be close to going into meltdown if she focused on what had just happened too intensely.
did I frighten him?' Her voice felt scratchy.
The cold flash of sheer disgust that crossed her husband's face was like a slap. If she'd had any doubts about his reaction they were laughably quashed now.
'No. If you had I wouldn't be here right now.'
The protective tone in his voice was unmistakable. Rowan pushed herself up to sit on the side of the bed. Her head still felt light, as if stuffed with cotton wool. Warily she looked up at Isandro. It almost physically hurt to see him like this after all this time. She'd dreamed of this moment for so long
but of course she had to concede that never in her imaginings had she fooled herself into believing that Isandro would be pleased to see her. That had been confined to her fantasies.
'Did you call him Zacar as?' she asked with a husky catch. Her eye was drawn to a muscle clenching in his jaw. But his curt, tight voice brought her eyes back to his.
'After your grandfather
A look of disdain flashed across his face. 'Please let's not pretend that you actually care.'
Rowan winced, her face paling. She'd known exactly what she might expect when she confronted Isandro, but she just hadn't expected it so soon. She'd wanted to be in control, to have the chance to explain, be ready
Who was she kidding? In that moment she felt like she'd never be ready to explain.
'Your lover was sent on his way.'
Rowan had been in the act of standing, and promptly sat back down again. Isandro watched her coolly, but he felt anything but cool inside. It was taking all his self-control not to walk over, haul her up and demand
what? He shook inwardly with the force of the emotions running through him. The strongest of which felt suspiciously and awfully like jealousy. But he told himself it was only his pride that he cared about, that this vortex threatening to consume him couldn't possibly be linked into feelings. He'd learnt that lesson two years ago.
'My what?' She looked at Isandro incredulously. Now she really felt removed from reality.
'Your lover,' he spat out. 'The man you had come to meet. No doubt you have a room booked here somewhere? Is this how you've spent the last couple of years? In a debauched world tour of hotel rooms with insignificant men? Is this what you meant when you said you weren't ready to deal with marriage and motherhood?'
Rowan's head throbbed, and she put a hand to her temple, struggling to make sense of what he said. And then it hit her as a benign, friendly face swam into her mind's eye. She looked up at him again, her eyes wide. 'You must be talking about David Fairclough. He's my solicitor. I was due to meet him downstairs, just when
Isandro snorted contemptuously. 'A likely story. You really wanted to rub my nose in it, didn't you?'
Rowan barely heard what he was saying. She finally found the strength to stand, her hands balled into fists at her sides. 'It is true. I was meeting him
' She faltered. She really hadn't planned on it happening this way, but there was nothing she could do now. She hitched up her chin. 'I was meeting him to discuss how best to contact you and talk about seeing my son.'
Isandro crossed his arms across his chest, making him look even more powerful, formidable. He blocked the light coming in from the window behind him and it made a shiver run down Rowan's spine.
'I can tell you right now that that is not going to happen.' His whole stance screamed rejection of her claim.
Panic coursed through Rowan. She stepped forward jerkily. 'But I have a right to see my child, no matter what's happened. You can't stop me.' To her utter chagrin her throat tightened with tears. She fought to control herself. She couldn't fall apartnot here, like this. She needed to be strong.
'I can and I will.' Isandro was icy and controlled. She shook her head and opened her mouth to speak, but he cut in ruthlessly. 'I wouldn't be surprised if you'd forgotten till today that it was a boy you had, you left so fast.'
Rowan's mouth closed, and the pain that lanced through her was raw and overwhelming. Her voice sounded thready to her ears. 'I
Of course I knew he was a boy. I've thought of nothing else but him every day since'
Isandro took two quick strides and gripped Rowan's arm painfully. 'Enough!'