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Emma Hayes put a hand over her slightly curved belly, swaying as the double-decker bus traveled deeper into central London in the gray afternoon rain.
For ten weeks, she'd tried not to hope. Tried not to think about it. Even when she'd gone to her doctor's office that morning, she'd been bracing herself for some problem, to be told that she must be brave.
Instead she'd seen a rapid steady beat on the sonogram as her doctor pointed to the flash on the screen. "See the heartbeat? 'Hi, Mum.'"
"I'm really pregnant?" she'd said through dry lips.
The man's eyes twinkled through his spectacles. "As pregnant as can be."
"And the baby'sall right?"
"It's all going perfectly. Textbook, I'd say." The doctor had given her a big smile. "I think it's safe to tell your husband now, Mrs. Hayes."
Her husband. The words echoed through Emma's mind as she closed her eyes, leaning back into her seat on the top deck of the Number 9 bus. Her husband. How she wished there was such a person, waiting for her in a homey little cottagea man who'd kiss her with a cry ofjoy at the news of his coming child. But in direct opposition to what she'd told her physician, there was no husband.
Just a boss. A boss who'd made love to her nearly three months ago in a single night of reckless passion, then disappeared in the cold dawn, leaving her to wake up alone in his huge bed. The same bed that she'd made for him over the past seven years, complete with ironed sheets.
I know the maid could do it, but I prefer that you handle it personally. No one can do it like you, Miss Hayes.
Oh, boy. She'd really handled it personally this time, hadn't she?
Blinking, Emma stared out the window as the red double-decker bus made its way down Kensington Road. Royal Albert Hall went by in a blur of red brick behind the rain-streaked glass. She wiped her eyes hard. Stupid tears. She shouldn't be crying. She was happy about this baby. Thrilled, in fact. She'd honestly thought she could never get pregnant. It was a miracle.
A lump rose in her throat.
Cesare would never be a real father to their baby. He would never be her husband, a man who would kiss her when he came home from work and tuck their baby in at night. No matter how she might wish otherwise.
Because Cesare Falconeri, self-made billionaire, sexy Italian playboy, had two passions in life. The first was expanding his far-flung hotel empire across the globe, working relentlessly to expand his net worth and power. The second, a mere hobby when he had an hour or two to spare, was to seduce beautiful women, which he did for sport, as other men might play football or golf.
Her sexy Italian boss annihilated the thin hearts of supermodels and heiresses alike with the same careless, seductive, selfish charm. He cared nothing for any of them.
Emma knew that. As his housekeeper, she was the one responsible for arranging morning-after gifts for his one-night stands. Usually Cartier watches. Bought in bulk.
As the bus traveled through Mayfair, the lights of the Ritz Hotel slid by. Looking down from the top deck of the bus, Emma saw pedestrians dressed in Londoners' typical festive autumn attirethat is to say, entirely in blackstruggling with umbrellas in the rain and wind.
It was the first of November. Just yesterday, the warmth of Indian summer had caressed the city like a lover, with promises of forever. Today, drizzle and rain had descended. The city, so recently bright and warm, had become melancholy, haunted and filled with despair.
Or maybe it was just her.
For the past seven yearssince she'd first started as a maid at Cesare's hotel in New York, at the age of twenty-oneshe'd been absolutely in love with him, and absolutely careful not to show it. Careful not to show any feelings at all.
You never bore me with personal stories, Miss Hayes. I hardly know anything about you. He'd smiled. Thank you.
Then three months ago, she'd come back from her stepmother's funeral in Texas and he'd found her alone in his darkened kitchen, clutching an unopened bottle of tequila, with tears streaming down her cheeks. For a moment, Ce-sare had just stared at her.
Then he'd pulled her roughly into his arms.
Perhaps he'd only meant to offer comfort, but by the end of the night, he'd taken the virginity she'd saved for him, just for him, even when she knew she had no hope. He'd taken her to his bed, and made Emma's gray, lonely world explode with color and fire.
And today, a new magic, every bit as shocking and unexpected. She was pregnant with his baby.
Emma traced her fingertip into the shape of a heart against a fogged-up corner of the bus window. If only his playboy nature could change. If only she could believe he'd actually wish to be a father someday, and even fall in love with Emma, as she'd fallen for him
The double-decker bus jolted to a stop, and with an intake of breath she abruptly wiped the heart off the glass. Cesare, love? That was a laugh. He couldn't even stick around for breakfast, much less commit to raising a family!
Ever since she'd woken up alone in his bed that cold morning after, Emma had faithfully kept his mansion in Kensington sparkling clean in perpetual hope for his arrival. But she'd found out from one of the secretaries that he'd actually returned to London two days ago. Instead of coming home, he was staying at his suite at the flagship London Falconeri near Trafalgar Square.
His unspoken words were clear. He wanted to make sure Emma knew she meant nothing to him, any more than the stream of models and starlets who routinely paraded through his bed.
But there was one big difference. None of his other lovers had gotten pregnant.
Because unlike the rest, he'd slept with her without protection. He'd believed her when she'd whispered to him in the dark that pregnancy was impossible. Cesare, who trusted no one, had taken Emma at her word.
Her hands tightened on the handrail of the seat in front of her. Here she'd been fantasizing about homey cottages and Cesare miraculously turning into a devoted father. The truth was that when he learned their one-night stand had caused a pregnancy, he'd think she'd lied. That she'd deliberately gotten pregnant to trap him.
He'd hate her.
So don't tell him, a cowardly voice whispered. Run away. Take that job in Paris. He never has to know.
But she couldn't keep her pregnancy a secret. Even if the odds were a million to one that he'd want to be part of their baby's life, didn't even Cesare deserve that chance?
A loud burst of laughter, and the stomp of people climbing to the top deck, made Emma glance out the window. She leaped to her feet. "Wait, please!" she cried to the bus driver, who obligingly waited as she ran down the bus stairs, nearly tripping over her own feet. Out on the sidewalk, buffeted by passersby, she looked up at the elegant, imposing gray-stone Falconeri Hotel. Putting her handbag over her head to dodge the rain, Emma ran into the grand lobby. Nodding at the security guard, she shook the rain off her camel-colored mackintosh and took the elevator to the tenth floor.
Trembling, she walked down the hall to the suite of rooms Cesare occasionally used as an office and a pied-a-terre after a late evening out in Covent Garden. Cesare liked to be in the thick of things. The floor wasn't private, but shared by those guests who could afford rooms at a thousand pounds a night. Trembling, she knocked on the door.
She heard a noise on the other side, and then the door was abruptly wrenched open.
Emma looked up with an intake of breath. "Cesare "
But it wasn't her boss. Instead a gorgeous young woman, barely covered in lingerie, stood in his doorway.
"Yes?" the woman said in a bored tone, leaning against the door as if she owned it.
A blade of ice went through Emma's heart as she recognized the woman. Olga Lukin. The famous model who had dated Cesare last year. Her body shook as she tried to say normally, "Is Mr. Falconeri here?"
"Who are you?"
"Oh." The supermodel's shoulders relaxed. "He's in the shower."
"The shower," Emma repeated numbly.
"Yesss," Olga Lukin said with exaggerated slowness. "Do you want me to give him a message?"
"There's no point in you waiting." The blonde glanced back at the mussed bed, plainly visible in the hotel suite, and gave a catlike smile. "As soon as he's done, we're going out." Leaning forward, she confided in a stage whisper, "Right after we have another go."
Emma looked at Olga's bony shape, her cheekbones that could cut glass. She was absolutely gorgeous, a woman who'd look perfect on any billionaire's arm. In his bed.
While Emmashe suddenly felt like nothing. Nobody. Short, round and drab, not particularly pretty, with the big hips of someone who loved extra cookies at teatime, wearing a beige raincoat, knit dress and sensible shoes. Her long black hair, when it wasn't pulled back in a plaited chignon, hadn't seen the inside of a hairdresser's in years.
Humiliation made her ears burn. How could she have dreamed, even for an instant, that Cesare might want to marry someone like her and raise a baby in a snug little cottage?
He must have slept with her that night out of pity nothing more!
"No." Emma shook her head, hiding her tears. "No message."
"Ta, then," she said rudely. But as she started to close the door, there was a loud bang as Cesare came out of the bathroom.
Emma's heart stopped in her chest as she saw him for the first time since he'd left her in his bed.
Cesare was nearly naked, wearing only a low-slung white towel around his hips, gripping another towel wrapped carelessly over his broad shoulders. His tanned, muscular chest was bare, his black hair still damp from the shower. He stopped, scowling at Olga.
"What are you"
Then he saw Emma in the doorway, and his spine snapped straight. His darkly handsome face turned blank. "Miss Hayes."
Miss Hayes? He was back to calling her thatwhen for the past five years they'd been on a first-name basis? Miss Hayes?
After so long of hiding her every emotion from him, purely out of self-preservation, something cracked in her heart. She looked from him, to Olga, to the mussed bed.
"Is this your way of showing me my place?" She shook her head tearfully. "What is wrong with you, Cesare?"
His dark eyes widened in shock.
Staggering back, horrified at what she'd said, and brokenhearted at what she'd not been able to say, she turned and fled.
"Miss Hayes," she heard him call behind her, and then,
She kept going. Her throat throbbed with pain. She ran with all her heart, desperate to reach the safety of the elevator, where she could burst into tears in privacy. And start planning an immediate departure for Paris, where she'd never have to face him againor remember her own foolish dreams.
A father for her baby. A snug home. A happy family. A man who'd love her back, who would protect her, who'd be faithful. A tear fell for each crushed dream. She wiped her eyes furiously. How could she have ever let herself get in this positionwith Cesare, of all people? Why hadn't she been more careful? Why?
Emma heard his low, rough curse behind her, and the hard thud of his bare feet. Before she reached the elevator, he grabbed her arm, whirling her around in the hall.
"What do you want, Miss Hayes?" he demanded.
"Miss Hayes? " she bit out, struggling to get free. "Are you kidding me with that? We've seen each other naked!"
He released her, clearly surprised by her sharp tone.
"That doesn't explain what you're doing here," he said stiffly. "You've never sought me out like this before."
No, and she never would again! "Sorry I interrupted your date."
"It's not a I have no idea what Olga is doing in my room. She must have gotten a key and snuck in."
Hot tears burned behind her eyes. "Right."
"We broke up months ago."
"Looks like you're back together."
"Not so far as I'm concerned."
"Now, that I believe," she choked out. "Because once you have sex, any relationship is pretty much over where you're concerned, isn't it?"
"We didn't just have sex." He set his jaw. "Have you ever known me to lie?"
That stopped her.
"No," she whispered. Cesare never lied. He always made his position brutally clear. No commitment, no promises, no future.
Yet, somehow many women still managed to convince themselves otherwise. To believe they were special. Until they woke alone the morning after, to find Emma serving them breakfast with their going-away present, and ended up weeping in her arms.
"I really don't care." Emma ran an unsteady hand over her forehead. "It's none of my business."
"No. It's not."
She took a deep breath. "I just came to to tell you something."
The dim lighting of the elegant hotel hallway left hard shadows against Cesare's cheekbones, the dark scruff of his jaw, and his muscular, tanned chest. His black eyes turned grim. "Don't."
Her lips parted on an intake of breath. "What?"
"You don't even know what I'm going to say."
"I can guess. You're going to tell me all about your feelings. You've always shared so little. I convinced myself you didn't have any. That I was just a job to you."
Emma almost laughed hysterically in his face. Oh, if only he knew. For years, she'd worked for him until her brain was numb and her fingers were about to fall off. Her first thought each morning when she wokewas him. Her last thought before she finally collapsed in bed each nightwas him. What he needed. What he wanted. What he would need and want tomorrow. He'd always been more than a job to her.
"It kept things simple," he said. "It's why we got along so well. I liked you. Respected you. I'd started to think of us asfriends."
Friends. Against her will, Emma's gaze fell to the hard planes of his muscular, tanned chest laced with dark hair. Wearing only the low-slung white towel wrapped snugly around his hips, he was six feet three inches of powerful, hard-muscled masculinity, and he stood in the hallway of his hotel without the slightest self-consciousness, as arrogant as if he were wearing a tailored suit. A few people passed them in the hallway, openly staring. Emma swallowed. It would be hard for any woman to resist staring at Cesare. Even now she. God help her, even now.
"Now you're going to ruin it." His eyes became flinty. "You're going to tell me that you care. You've rushed down here to explain you still can't forget our night together. Even though we both swore it wouldn't change anything, you're going to tell me you're desperately in love with me." He scowled. "I thought you were special, but you're going to prove you're just like the rest."
The reverberations of his cruel words echoed in the empty hallway, like a bullet ricocheting against the walls before it landed square and deep in her heart.
For a moment, Emma couldn't breathe. Then she forced herself to meet his eyes.
"I would have to be stupid to love you," she said in a low voice. "I know you too well. You'll never love anyone, ever again."
He blinked. "So you're notin love with me?"
He sounded so hopeful. She stared up at him, her heart pounding, tears burning behind her eyes. "I'd have to be the biggest idiot who ever lived."
His dark gaze softened. "I don't want to lose you, Emma. You're irreplaceable."