Read an Excerpt
"I don't care, Stuart. I'm not letting a total stranger just take my daughter from me."
Claire Douglas's lawyer, Stuart Ewing, patted her on the hand. He had a grandfatherly way about him, an easygoing attitude that belied the fact that he was a courtroom barracuda. She had a lot of faith and money invested in the man, but that didn't mean she wasn't terrified deep down.
"We'll work something out, Claire. I just need you to keep your cool when we go in there. Don't let your emotions get the best of you."
Claire frowned. Keeping her emotions in check was not exactly her specialty. She'd been bombarded with emotions over the past two years. Her life had become a roller coaster from the moment she found out she was pregnant. After years of failed fertility treatments, it had been their last chance. That moment had been the highest of highs.
Her husband dying in a car accident when she was five months pregnant was the lowest of lows. Especially the painful revelations that followed it. The birth of her daughter had been the only thing that pulled her out of that dark place, giving her a reason to be joyful and live her life again.
But she'd never expected this. The disclosure of the mistake they'd made at the fertility clinic had changed her whole life. It had made her a millionaire, and at the same time had threatened the stability of her small family.
"Mrs. Douglas? Mr. Ewing? They're ready for you." The receptionist at the front desk gestured to a set of double doors that led to a conference room.
There, Claire presumed, waited the man who was trying to take her child and the lawyer he'd hired to help him. She felt her stomach roll, threatening to return the coffee and bagel she'd forced down her throat that morning.
"Come on, Claire," Stuart said, pushing up from the waiting-room chair. "Everything is going to be fine. You're not going to lose your daughter."
Claire nodded, trying to act calm and assured, though she was anything but. There were no guarantees. They were marching into a room where Edmund Harding was waiting for them. He was the kind of lawyer every billionaire in Manhattan had on speed dial. Harding had such a level of prestige and influence that he could probably get the courts to do anything he wanted.
Scooping up her purse, she forced her trembling hands into tight fists at her sides and followed Stuart into the conference room.
The room was elegant and intimidating, with a large rectangular glass table that cut it in two like a blade. There was no question that it divided everything into their side and their opponents' side. There were plush leather rolling chairs lining the table, but at the moment all of them were empty.
Claire's gaze drifted to the large, floor-to-ceiling windows on the left side of the room. A man stood in front of it, looking out over Central Park. She couldn't make out any of his features, just the hulking shape of his broad shoulders and narrow waist. The man was tall, his arms crossed over his chest. He emitted an intense energy that Claire picked up on immediately.
"Ah, Mrs. Douglas," a voice called. "Mr. Ewing, please have a seat."
Claire turned toward the voice and found a man on the other side of the room. He was gathering paperwork in his hands and carrying it to the table. The man had a certain studious look about him that convinced her that he was the infamous Edmund Harding. That meant the man by the window had to be
"Luca, we're ready to begin," Edmund said.
As Claire settled into her seat, the man at the window finally turned. When he did, Claire was very glad she was already sitting. The face that regarded her was like a Florentine masterpiece of the Renaissance. He had a square, clean-shaven jaw and high cheekbones that looked as if they were carved out of marble. Dark brows hovered over narrowed eyes that crinkled at the edges.
Those eyes ran over Claire for a moment, then turned away, disinterested. He strode to the conference table and sat beside his lawyer.
This was the father of her child?
She almost couldn't believe it, and yet her daughter's dark curls and olive complexion certainly hadn't come from her.
"Before we begin, can my assistant bring anyone anything? Water? Coffee?" Edmund asked.
"No, thank you," Claire said quietly.
"Coffee, black," the man across the table demanded. No niceties, no please or thank you. He seemed very much to be the kind of man who was used to getting what he wanted.
He wouldn't get his way this time. Claire was determined not to let this man get his hooks into her daughter. He didn't even know Eva. How could he possibly get custody of her?
The assistant brought Luca a mug of black coffee and silently disappeared as quickly as she arrived.
"Thank you for coming today," Edmund began as the door clicked shut. "We asked to meet with you in person because we feel as though our prior communications aren't having the impact they should. Mr. Moretti is very serious about pursuing his joint custody filing."
Being served with papers that said a stranger was demanding custody of her daughter had nearly floored her. When she had learned the truth about the mix-up at the fertility clinic, a part of her had hoped that the biological father would be disinterested in Eva. She found out quickly that was not going to be the case.
"Don't you think that filing was premature?" Stuart asked. "He hasn't even met the child, but he thinks he should have joint custody?"
"He would've met his daughter weeks ago if your client had cooperated with our requests. We had no choice but to do something Mrs. Douglas couldn't continue to ignore."
The two lawyers continued to argue, but Claire found her attention was drawn to the silent force sitting across from her. While his lawyer did all the talking, Luca Moretti leaned back in his chair and studied Claire. His dark hazel eyes ran over every inch of her. She did her best to hold still, not wanting to squirm or show any sign of weakness in front of him.
Instead, she focused on studying him just as closely. It was so easy to see pieces of him in Eva. When her daughter was born, Claire had been confused by the baby they handed her, with the head of dark, curly hair. Claire had dark honey-blond hair. Her husband, Jeff, had light brown hair. Neither was olive skinned nor had a cleft in their chin, but Eva did.
But all her confusion and worry disappeared the moment she looked into her daughter's gray eyes. She fell in love that instant, and no longer cared what Eva looked like because she was perfect. For all Claire knew, Jeff had Spanish or Italian blood he'd never told her about.
The doubts hadn't arisen in her mind again until the clinic called three months later. They'd informed her that their last vial of sperm was due for destruction in three months if they didn't use it. They hadn't opted to pay the lifetime storage fees because they'd intended to use it all fairly quickly.
The call confused her because they'd used their last dose when they conceived Eva. That information had raised red flags, and it wasn't long until they discovered the truthher husband's sperm had a number transposed on the paperwork and another client's sperm was used instead.
Luca Moretti's, to be exact.
The thought sent a chill through her. The man had never touched her and yet a part of him had been inside her. What was a man like Luca doing at a fertility clinic, anyway? Putting himself through college by selling sperm for cash? Every inch of his body, from his broad shoulders to his hard jaw, screamed the kind of masculinity she hadn't been exposed to in a very long time, if ever. With the right look, Claire was certain he could make a woman's ovaries explode. If a man like Luca needed the services of a fertility clinic, a lesser man didn't stand a chance with his own progeny.
And yet, he was there. When the news broke, Luca had focused his attention on the fertility clinic. He'd sent Edmund after them and before Claire knew it, the clinic was begging to settle out of court and keep the scandal quiet. She had instantly gone from a comfortable middle-class woman, to someone who didn't need to work another day in her life.
But then Luca turned his legal bulldogs on her. Claire wouldn't back down, though. She didn't care if it cost her every penny of her settlement battling in court. Eva was her baby. It was hard enough trying to deal with the revelation of her daughter's paternity. She was still trying to work through her anger and confusion about Jeff's death. How could she tell Jeff's parents that Eva wasn't their biological granddaughter? She had a lot on her plate already. She didn't need Luca coming out of nowhere and making demands about her child.
"There's got to be a happy medium," Stuart said, pulling her attention back into the conversation.
"My client isn't open to negotiating any terms that don't involve providing him with visits with his daughter."
"My daughter." Claire spoke up with all the force she could muster. She felt Stuart's hand covering hers, trying to calm her, but it wasn't going to help. "Eva is my daughter. I'm not just going to hand her over to some stranger. I don't know anything about this man. He could be a serial killer or some kind of pervert. Would you just hand over your child to a stranger, Mr. Harding?"
Edmund was startled by her outburst, but the sound that caught her attention was the snort of laughter from the man beside him. It was the first noise Luca had made since he demanded his coffee. When she turned to look at him, she noticed a sparkle of interest in his eyes and a hint of amusement curling a corner of his full lips. He was no longer just studying her, he actually seemed
intrigued by her.
"I can assure you that my client is no criminal, Mrs. Douglas. He is the CEO of the nation's largest family-owned Italian restaurant chain, Moretti's Italian Kitchen."
Claire turned away from Luca's intense stare. It was unnerving her, and this was no time for her to be compromised. So, he was a hotshot restaurateur. Good for him. But what difference did that make when it came to his character? Success didn't make him a saint. "So you're presuming that rich businessmen can't be murderers or child molesters? I counter that they just have better lawyers."
"My client is willing to cooperate to soothe your concerns, Mrs. Douglas. We're not the bad guys here. We're just trying to ensure that Eva is in Mr. Moretti's life. We welcome you to have a background check conducted. You won't find anything questionable. But when you don't find the skeletons you're looking for, you're going to have to let him see Eva."
"And if Mrs. Douglas doesn't cooperate?"
Claire held her breath, waiting to see what they would say. Would they push her or back down until their court date?
"Then," Edmund explained, "we stop playing nice. I'll file an emergency visitation motion to compel access to Eva and let the courts decide. You can be certain the judge will give my client even more time with his daughter than we're requesting. It's your choice, Mrs. Douglas."
So this was Claire Douglas.
Luca had to admit he was surprised. Her name had been on his mind and crossed his desk a hundred times since the mix-up came to light. He didn't know what he was expecting the widowed Mrs. Douglas to look like, but young, slender and blonde had not been on the list. It had taken everything he had to hold his composure when he turned from the window and saw her standing there.
Her practical gray suit clung to every delicious curve and almost exactly matched the shade of her eyes. Her honey-colored hair was twisted back into a professional bun at her nape. He wanted to pull out the hair pins and let the blond waves tumble over her shoulders.
The longer he sat watching Claire, the more curious he became about her. How had a woman so young become a widow? Was she always this uptight, or was it just because she didn't like him? He wanted to run his thumb between her eyebrows to smooth the crease her serious frown had worn there.
It made him wonder if their daughter looked more like him or her. Did she have Claire's porcelain skin and pert nose? Did her ears turn red when she got angry the way her mother's did? The furious shift in Claire had immediately caught his attention. There was more fire in her than the bland gray suit would indicate.
"Can they do that?" Claire asked, turning to her lawyer. She looked completely panicked by the thought of Luca having access to their child.
It seemed so wrong for him to have a child with a woman he'd never met. Luca hadn't even given any serious thought to having a family. He'd only stored his sperm to make the doctors and his mother feel better. He hadn't actually expected to use it.
But now that he had a living, breathing child, he wasn't about to sit back and pretend it didn't happen. Eva was probably the only child he would ever have, and he'd already missed months of her life. That would not continue.
"We can and we will." Luca spoke up at last. "This whole thing is a mess that neither of us anticipated, but it doesn't change the facts. Eva is my daughter, and I've got the paternity test results to prove it. There's not a judge in the county of New York who won't grant me emergency visitation while we await our court date. They will say when and where and how often you have to give her to me."
Claire sat, her mouth agape at his words. "She's just a baby. She's only six months old. Why fight me for her just so you can hand her over to a nanny?"
Luca laughed at her presumptuous tone. "What makes you so certain I'll have a nanny for her?"
" she began. "You're a rich, powerful, unmarried businessman. You're better suited to run a corporation than to change a diaper. I'm willing to bet you don't have the first clue of how to care for an infant, much less the time."
Luca just shook his head and sat forward in his seat. "You know very little about me, tesorina, you've said so yourself, so don't presume anything about me. Besides, even if I have a nanny, it doesn't matter because Eva is my daughter, too. I'm going to fight for the right to see her even if all I do is pass her off to someone else. Like it or not, you don't get any say into what I do when I have her."